There is nothing quite as wonderful as a good comedy from the 1980s, is there? One of the brightest directorial minds in comedy is John Landis, who directed quite possibly my favorite film of all time, The Blues Brothers, and my favorite horror film of all time, An American Werewolf in London. Landis’ filmography in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s alone is one of the best by any filmmaker, and right in the middle of his peak period, he directed Trading Places, an extraordinarily fun, but slightly flawed, comedy that saw some fantastic performances from a talented cast, all giving their best to a great concept.
The story is very simple, and is one of the great high-concept films of the 1980s. Two rich old men, Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche) and his brother Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) decide to undertake a wager – Randolph believes that an individual’s behavior is the product of his or her environment, and with the right circumstances, anyone can excel into wealth, or under terrible circumstances, find themselves on the streets or in prison.
Mortimer disagrees, but the brothers place a bet on this idea. They soon find their subjects – stuffy and meek Louis Winthrope III (Dan Aykroyd), the managing director of their commodities trading firm, and Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), the cunning homeless con-man that masquerades as a legless and blind Vietnam veteran. The brothers, using their money and influence, use both of these men in ways that would completely change their social standing, and they gleefully watch the results…but soon discover that these two men that they treat as guinea pigs are far more cunning than they initially expected.
Dan Aykroyd, who was fantastic in The Blues Brothers, does his very best in a very out-of-character performance, playing a straight-laced, stuffy executive. To be perfectly honest, the first act really annoyed me, because Akroyd seemed to be struggling badly to make Louis an interesting or relatable character. However, as the final went on, we started to see how Aykroyd made Louis truly annoying just so that we could witness his complete unraveling. It is a pity Aykroyd, who is still undeniably popular, wasn’t able to lead as many films and become the iconic comedic actor some of his peers have become.
Talking of comedic icons – Eddie Murphy is in this film, and he’s actually fantastic. The decline of Murphy has been truly terrible to watch, because while his current career is almost completely non-existent (he hasn’t made a decent film in almost a decade, and other than some voice work, most of his recent films are ones we should rather not talk about). Murphy’s streak of films in the 1980s, paired with his groundbreaking work on Saturday Night Live, is unprecedented for any comedic actor, and he truly did do what most comedic actors were never able to do. Being the biggest comedic actor on the planet can be tough, and almost no one has had the ability to maintain popularity and quality. Murphy is just another victim of the star falling, which is unfortunate because in Trading Places, he gives possibly his best performance. He taps into his ability to both play street-smart, urban characters, as well as stuffy and knowledgeable ones. He essentially plays two character here, and this is his best work in my opinion – and considering he had many other great performances in that decade.
This is clearly the Aykroyd and Murphy showcase, which is made even better when you consider that the supporting cast relentlessly goes toe-to-toe with the two stars and actually threaten to steal the film several times. Jamie Lee Curtis plays Ophelia, the prostitute that Aykroyd’s character meets and befriends, who helps him see the other side of society. Beautiful and charming, and wonderfully hilarious, Jamie Lee Curtis has always been one of the best actresses working, and the fact that she is so underrated is a real tragedy, and her performance in Trading Places shows a wonderfully talented and versatile actress. Denholm Elliot, playing the butler Coleman, is absolutely hysterical, and he brings a nuance to the stereotypical butler character rarely ever seen. I can compare him to John Gielguld in Arthur, and Arthur Lowe in The Ruling Class, as actors who play butlers that frequently steal the film from the stars. Personally, my favorite performances came out of the Duke Brothers – both Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy are Golden Age of Hollywood legends, and here, playing the bitterly funny antagonists, they truly shine. Ameche, in particular, shows off his vaudeville background, displaying his mastery of body language, facial expression and gesture to characterize Mortimer. Ameche was such an underrated actor himself, and his performance here is wonderfully funny, and playing the more cynical, hard-nosed brother of the two is not a rewarding job, but it certainly is an entertaining one at that.
As great as Trading Places is, there are certainly flaws. One of which is that fact that this film tries to tell a much longer story, and to include so much more than is necessary. Instead of getting one coherent story, we rather get smaller versions of each story, which is slightly unsatisfying. An example of this comes when the brothers conclude their experiment, which should have taken place near the end, but happens rather in the second act (a narrative point that threw me off, because I didn’t think that was where it should have occurred). The narrative of this film was misaligned at times, which caused a lot of confusion, as many smaller plot points were ignored. Both Jamie Lee Curtis and Denholm Elliot could have received a bit more to do, as their characters were at times woefully misused, and they were both clearly game to do more than they eventually did. A bit more contrast between the two lives of the main characters could have happened and made it a bit more entertaining to see these characters in completely new situations and watching how they deal with it. The biggest flaw is that Landis rushed the final act, where the two main characters take on the Duke Brothers in commodity trading – and while it should be an interesting development, it is rather confusing and convoluted, which caused considerable confusion. However, these flaws are not that bad, and they are just small elements of a fantastic film overall.
Trading Places is fantastic. Funny and charming, it is well-made and has great performances. It is a typical 1980s comedy, and it has all the characteristics one would expect. However, it is wonderfuly entertaining, and really made very well. Ameche, Elliot and Murphy are the definite standouts, and the entire cast really does a great job. Trading Places is a really fantastic film, and makes me wish John Landis was still making movies.