Trading Places (1983)

Directed by John Landis

I think this is the first “holiday” movie I’ve watched this year. To be honest, though, I never thought of Trading Places as that kind of movie until recently. But it is a kind of feel good movie and it is set around the holiday season. There is even a scene with Dan Ackroyd dressed up as Santa as a way to slip into a seasonal party.

So, yes, it’s a Christmas movie.

Fortunately, it has a lot more going for it than some seasonal schmaltz. It’s very funny and very well executed.

Deliberately or not, the movie brings together two story ideas of Mark Twain. The first is The Prince and the Pauper, where roles are exchanged between a prince and a commoner. The second is the The £1,000,000 Bank Note where a bet is made that a poor man, given a one million pound note, would not even need to spend it because the world would treat him differently.

In Trading Places, Dan Ackroyd as Louis Winthorpe III and Eddie Murphy as the street hustling Billy Ray Valentine, trade roles because two wealthy men have made a bet (the Dukes – Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche).

Louis is a wealthy, prissy and pampered commodities broker working for the Randolph and Mortimer Duke. Randolph bets his brother one dollar that Louis would quickly become a scrounging criminal if all his wealth was taken from him. At the same time, a street thief given the opportunities and wealth of Louis, would quickly replace him, being equally snotty.

So they change the lives of Louis and Billy Ray by switching them.

What we end up with is the fish out of water story – two of them, actually – and it’s very funny seeing the wealthy man suddenly dealing with poverty and the impoverished man suddenly wealthy and fawned over.

At the same time (as with the Twain stories) it allows for a degree of social commentary, though it isn’t excessive here. It also allows for wonderful characterizations. Trading Places is a kind of Capra movie with a more contemporary sensibility. It’s also a kind of variation on a movie like My Man Godfrey.

It’s not a screwball comedy, but at moments it dances around that kind of movie.

Like comedies involving wealth and poverty from the 1930s and 1940s, the movie has great supporting characters and performances, particularly from Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche as the Dukes (they seem to really relish these roles).

There is also Jamie Lee Curtis as Ophelia – a cliché as the hooker with a heart of gold but she brings something more to the role so you don’t really notice that it is a cliché.

And of course, there is Denholm Elliot as Coleman the man servant. He’s key in the movie because of his dry, straight-faced expressions, or slightly raised eyebrows. He’s often the punctuation on a joke.

This movie is a lot of fun to watch and well worth seeing more than once. If I don’t think of it as a Christmas movie, it is likely because Christmas is a kind of backdrop to the story. It’s a plot device rather than a theme.

But if the season provides a reason for watching it, so be it. You won’t go wrong with this one.

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