Directed by John Landis and written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, Trading Places is the story of two billionaire brothers who make a bet to switch the lives of two very different men. One is an upper class commodities broker who has lives the life that everyone wants while the other is a homeless street hustler where their lives are changed by this experiment. The film is a comedy about what happens when the lives of two different men are changed in an experiment of nature versus nuture where it leads to a revenge scheme from the two different men. Starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliot, and Jamie Lee Curtis. Trading Places is a witty yet entertaining comedy from John Landis.
Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) is a well-educated and rich commodities broker who has it all. A loyal butler named Coleman (Denholm Elliot) and is engaged to a beautiful young woman named Penelope (Kristin Holby), who is the grand-niece of billionaire brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, respectively). Yet, Randolph is unconvinced by an article on breeding versus environment as he wants to prove a group of scientists wrong. During an encounter with a poor street hustler named Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) where Valentine accidentally bumps into Winthorpe, the Duke Brothers decide to hold a secret experiment to switch the lives of Winthorpe and Valentine as a bet.
With the help of their secret henchman Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason), the Dukes publicly frame Winthorpe of theft as Beeks also bribes a corrupt policeman (Frank Oz) to stash angel dust into Winthorpe’s coat. Meanwhile, Valentine is bailed out by the Dukes as he lives in Winthorpe’s home with Coleman as he uses his street-smarts to become a very successful commodities broker. After being bailed out by Penelope, Winthorpe’s life is further ruined after meeting a hooker named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) who is paid by Beeks to talk dirty to him as Winthorpe loses Penelope and everything else. Living with Ophelia, Winthorpe learns about Valentine’s success as he hopes to get him trouble.
The plan backfires as Winthorpe was caught by Valentine and the Dukes putting Winthorpe more into despair. When Valentine later overhears a conversation between the Dukes about their bet and experiment, he seeks to find the already troubled Winthorpe as he brings him back to Coleman with Ophelia’s help. After learning what the Dukes did, Winthorpe seeks revenge where the two learn about the Dukes wanting to corner the frozen orange juice market with Beeks’ help. The two along with Coleman and Ophelia decides to go after Beeks and the crop report in a plan to get revenge on the Dukes.
While the storyline is based on Mark Twain’s The Prince & the Pauper about two different lives being changed, the film uses that plot device to explore the idea of how two different men can be changed in this experiment between nature versus nurture. In turn, the lives of these two very different men would change as both would gain something from this experience. For Louis Winthorpe III, he would gain a perspective of what is life like outside of all of the things rich people have while Billy Ray Valentine would learn about how to make big money and be a part of society. The downside is that Winthorpe would face a certain prejudice for everything that has happened to him from the people he had known all of his life. For Valentine, he would learn that having lots of money would only bring trouble to people he knew back in the inner-city.
The screenplay by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod is very smart for the way they use the theme of breeding vs. environment by injecting humor into it. A lot of the humor is improvised yet manages to play into the story. There’s also some very well-rounded characters in the script such as the Dukes, Coleman, and Ophelia. The Dukes are these greedy men who care about money and nothing else while using this experiment as a bet where the big shock of that bet was how much all of it was worth. In Coleman, here’s a butler that is loyal though at times seems neglected only until he’s forced to play into the Dukes’ scheme where he would later help out Winthorpe and Valentine. Ophelia is a character who may be a hooker with a heart of gold but is a woman that is very intelligent and doesn’t take gruff from anyone as she is trying to save money to have a good life.
John Landis’ direction is very engaging in the way he presents the film as he creates some amazing scenes to contrast the different world of these two men. One key scene is where a downtrodden Winthorpe is outside a posh restaurant as it’s raining where he sees Valentine eating dinner with the rich. The scene cuts back and forth to what is happening while there’s another scene of the two men encountering each other where Winthorpe is in a cab while Valentine is in a limo. The framing of the film is pretty straightforward yet it does delve into the chaos of what goes on during the film’s climatic scene at the commodities trading floor. There is lot of scenes that are very funny but also some very low-key dramatic moments to help advance the story. Overall, Landis creates a truly funny and engrossing comedy that is filled with great one-liners and lots of memorable moments.
Cinematographer Robert Paynter is excellent for the dark-look of some of the interiors in the posh homes while a lot of it is straightforward including colorful shots of the winter scenes in Philadelphia. Editor Malcolm Campbell does a nice job with the editing as a lot of is straightforward while doing some great montages of scenes where Winthorpe and Valentine would encounter each other during this bet as well as playing up the humor of the film. Production designer Gene Rudolf and set decorators George DeTitta Sr. and George DeTitta Jr. do a great job in creating the posh home of Winthorpe that Valentine would live in along with the very old-school yet wooden look of the office that Valentine works at with the computers of the time.
Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman does a very good job with the costumes from the suits and clothes the men wear to the more stylish look that Jamie Lee Curtis wears along with the costumes in the New Years Eve party scene. Sound editor Charles L. Campbell does a terrific job with the sound work from the party atmosphere of Valentine’s posh party to the chaos that goes on the climatic stock trading scene. The film’s score by Elmer Bernstein is superb for the playful yet flourishing orchestral pieces he uses that borrows elements of Mozart’s Overture, Marriage of Figaro for its main theme. The music soundtrack features a wonderful mix of different kinds of music from disco-funk like Sylvester, holiday music, and doo-wop by the Silhouettes.
The casting by Bonnie Timmermann is phenomenal for the ensemble that is created as it features some fantastic appearances from James Belushi as a guy in a gorilla suit, James Eckhouse as precinct guard, Giancarlo Esposito as one of Valentine’s cellmates, Frank Oz as a corrupt cop, Bill Cobbs as a bartender, Philip Bosco as a doctor, blues legend B.B. King as a pawnshop merchant, and as two bumbling baggage handlers, Al Franken and Tom Davis. In notable small roles, there’s Kristin Holby as Winthorpe’s snobbish fiancee Penelope and Paul Gleason as the Dukes’ vile henchman Clarence Beeks.
Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche are great, in their respective roles, as Randolph and Mortimer Duke who device a scheme that would ruin the life of one man and play games on another. Denholm Elliot is excellent as Winthorpe’s butler Coleman who reluctantly becomes part of the Dukes’ scheme as he befriends Valentine and later aids them both in their revenge scheme. Jamie Lee Curtis is amazing as Ophelia, a kind-hearted hooker who helps out the despaired Winthorpe while providing some great humor during the revenge scheme on Beeks.
Dan Aykroyd is terrific as Louis Winthorpe III, a pampered rich man whose life is changed by a bet where he tries to get revenge on Valentine only to realize he was played for a scheme. While Aykroyd is the straight man of the film, he does get to be funny in scenes later in the film while making the Winthorpe character a sympathetic one. Finally, there’s Eddie Murphy in an outstanding yet hilarious role as Billy Ray Valentine as a poor young guy who becomes a rich broker while using his street skills to make deals and such. Murphy brings a youthful enthusiasm to his role where he plays it cool and be very funny while having some great scenes together with Aykroyd as it’s one of Murphy’s essential performances.
Trading Places is truly one of the great comedies of the 1980s due to its witty approach to humor to a very provocative theme of breeding vs. environment. With a brilliant ensemble cast and a lively direction by John Landis, the film is definitely one of those comedies that is always watching over and over again while still being very funny. In the end, Trading Places is a whimsical yet charming comedy from John Landis.
John Landis Films: (Schlock) - (Kentucky Fried Movie) - (National Lampoon’s Animal House) - (The Blues Brothers) - (An American Werewolf in London) - (Coming Soon) - (The Twilight Zone (1983 film)) - (Into the Night) - (Spies Like Us) - (Three Amigos!) - (Amazon Women on the Moon) - Coming to America - (Oscar) - (Innocent Blood) - (Beverly Hills Cop III) - (The Stupids) - (Blues Brothers 2000) - (Susan’s Plan) - (Slasher) - (Mr. Warmth: The Don Rickles Project) - (Burke & Hare)
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