Skip to main content

Christmas, huh? I’ll give him a Christmas present he’ll never forget.

Trading Places
(1983)

(SPOILERS) It’s incredible to recall that Eddie Murphy was in his early twenties during his first flush of success (48Hrs, Trading Places, Beverly Hills Cop). And not, like contemporary Tom Cruise, playing teenagers but rather adult roles, roles where age wasn’t an identifier. Here he co-stars with the decade-senior Dan Aykroyd, but let’s not pretend Eddie isn’t the lead and main attraction. Director John Landis’ retro treatment of Trading Places, which Pauline Kael unflattering described as “a time warp... with its stodgy look, suggesting no period of the past or the present”, adds to the sense that the sky was the limit for Murphy and that, despite porting over his patented sense of humour unneutered, he wasn’t restricted by genre or period.

Kael begrudgingly liked the film, while giving Landis’ direction a good kicking (his “timing is deadly – he makes everything obvious”). Not untypically of her, she’s too hard on the picture – “In a crude, dogged way, the movie has a sense of humour: it keeps telling you how terrific its sense of humour is” – but she’s isn’t wrong that Landis isn’t the most finessed of directors (if you like his movies, and I’m a big fan of a fair few of them, their ramshackle quality is one of the keys to their appeal). She’s also not wrong that Trading Places “has that big, chugging structure working for it: the whole apparatus picks up some speed towards the end and comes to a rousing, slapstick finish…” That quality can’t be underestimated in a comedy; Trading Places is one of the too few that can be watched, if you so wish although that would be strange, for the plot alone rather than the laughs, and you’d still find it a satisfying movie.

Screenwriters Timothy Harris and Herscehl Weingrod essentially offer up a variant on The Prince and the Pauper, but via rich commodities broker brothers Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche placing a nature-or-nurture bet with each other. In so doing, they bring their favoured managing director Aykroyd to his knees and instead put Murphy’s street hustler in his place; Harris and Weingrod would reap the benefits of reworking a classic again a couple of years later, with Richard Pryor and Brewster’s Millions. While Kael begrudged Trading Places’ failure to match the pictures of yesteryear, The Film Yearbook Vol. 3 countered that it was “constructed like a classic Hollywood caper that might have been made by Preston Sturges 40 years ago”, adding that it was “Slickly paced by director John Landis”.

Aykroyd shows himself to be a surprisingly talented comic actor as the atypically privileged, entitled Louis Winthorpe III. Kael complains about the cartoonish, out-of-time elements in Trading Places – the butler (Denholm Elliott, bringing a touch of class to the proceedings) and Aykroyd’s comic shtick, “his face tilted up… like a snobby dog in a cartoon” – but these choices entirely work. Trading Places is rightly approached in a broad and exuberant rather than refined and dignified manner.

Aykroyd has the real work to do, making a prig sympathetic, and he manages to do so mostly by dint of dressing as a Santa Claus and drunkenly attacking a giant salmon entangled in his fake beard. He’s also aided considerably by Jamie Lee Curtis’ hooker with a heart of gold finding something loveable in him, and so suggesting we do too. As Landis says of Winthorpe “at the end of the movie, even though he’s changed his perspective, he’s the same asshole he is at the beginning. He kept the integrity of that privileged jerk”.

But this is Murphy’s movie. Landis described it as one of his two best performances (although, since the other he cites is Coming to America, another Landis movie, that should perhaps be taken with a pinch of salt). He’s inevitably in a class of his own when in full Murphy riffing mode, whether as a blind, legless veteran or Naga Eboko, exchange student from Cameroon (a scene in which Aykroyd is called upon to don blackface), but because you know he’s peerless when in full flight, you tend to notice his more subdued sustained moments more on revisit. There’s the sense of responsibility he assumes when turfing out the (former) friends taking advantage of his throwing a party, and his relationship with Denholm Elliot’s butler. My favourite moment might be his fourth-walling breaking response to being patronised by Randolph Duke (“Pork bellies, which is used to make bacon, which you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich”).

Landis, being of a generation of movie buffs, took full advantage of the opportunity to employ out-of-the-limelight stars of yesteryear Ralph Bellamy (as Randolph Duke) and Don Ameche (as Mortimer Duke). Their casual, privileged prejudice towards Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine (repeatedly referred to as a “negro”, or even as a “terrible awful negro” by Aykroyd’s Winthorpe) is key to their eventual downfall, having characterised him as a psychopath and so not expecting him to behave honourably. Dilys Powell called Trading Placesthe supreme retort to racism”, which might be overstating the case, but thematically this element is definitely in there; the picture at no point makes a meal of foregrounding the message and thereby forgetting it’s a comedy, however.

Landis describes how he was unfamiliar with Murphy when he was asked to feature him in the picture, but they got along really well (it was only later, on Coming to America, that things turned sour). In contrast, “Paramount felt that without John Belushi, Danny wasn’t a star”, citing the failure of Doctor Detroit. Which was true, actually. Landis reports they didn’t much want Curtis or Ameche and Bellamy either, come to that. His choices all looked like remarkably smart ones, though, when the movie became the fourth biggest of the year (behind Flashdance, Terms of Endearment and Return of the Jedi). It was also – a surprisingly common practice from today’s perspective – a summer release set over the Christmas period (Gremlins the following year, Die Hard in '88).

Trading Places is remarkably well sustained, then, and Landis, with his penchant for cameos and asides, only really comes unstuck during the train sequence, with the determinedly unfunny Al Franken and Tom Davis given bits of business as baggage handlers. We also get to see John Belushi dressed as a gorilla, and then Paul Gleason, embarking on his career of 80s rotters as Beeks, who has insider-style obtained a report on frozen concentrated orange juice that needs to be intercepted. He’s not holding back in venting his spleen (“I’ll rip out your eyes and piss in your brain”) and so is condemned to a fate of being serially raped by a gorilla.

Trading Places was the first picture Landis made after The Twilight Zone: The Movie accident that killed Vic Morrow and child extras Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen (in relation to which, the director was eventually acquitted of involuntary manslaughter). Tonally you wouldn’t guess this event had immediately preceded it (“Just get me any movie out of town” he had told his agent). It’s only with the subsequent Into the Night that you perhaps sense more morbid preoccupations. Julia Phillips, in You’ll Never Eat Lunch in This Town Again, described Landis as a “little megalomaniacal prick” whom Spielberg hated (“… I always wonder if he felt threatened, Landis being so child-prodigy and all, Steven pretty much feeling he had the corner on that arena”) and even darkly suggested Spielberg, producer on the movie, might have been present on the fateful night (“No way Steven wasn’t there, I think for a moment, he’s always so fond of the pyrotechnics… Yeah, Steven had been there for sure, I bet”).

Trading Places cemented Landis as a collaborator with Saturday Night Live veterans, but with a twist. You couldn’t get more contemporary and cheerfully undisciplined than his earlier The Blues Brothers. Here, “I saw that I could make it old fashioned in the best sense”. He’d sustain such successes, give or take, for the rest of the decade (Spies Like Us, Three Amigos, Coming to America) before the '90s saw his fortunes as a filmmaker flatline. 

And how is Trading Places as a Christmas movie? It’s very much the backdrop, such that, while it ends on an upbeat note, the righteous rewarded and the wrongful punished, it never feels the need or desire to acknowledge a season of goodwill instinct. The most festive it gets is Aykroyd in a Santa suit being used as a lamppost by a passing dog.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Nanobots aren’t just for Christmas.

No Time to Die (2021) (SPOILERS) You know a Bond movie is in trouble when it resorts to wholesale appropriation of lines and even the theme song from another in order to “boost” its emotional heft. That No Time to Die – which previewed its own title song a year and a half before its release to resoundingly underwhelmed response, Grammys aside – goes there is a damning indictment of its ability to eke out such audience investment in Daniel Craig’s final outing as James (less so as 007). As with Spectre , the first half of No Time to Die is, on the whole, more than decent Bond fare, before it once again gets bogged down in the quest for substance and depth from a character who, regardless of how dapper his gear is, resolutely resists such outfitting.

Maybe the dingo ate your baby.

Seinfeld 2.9: The Stranded The Premise George and Elaine are stranded at a party in Long Island, with a disgruntled hostess.

Big things have small beginnings.

Prometheus (2012) Post- Gladiator , Ridley Scott opted for an “All work and no pondering” approach to film making. The result has been the completion of as many movies since the turn of the Millennium as he directed in the previous twenty years. Now well into his seventies, he has experienced the most sustained period of success of his career.  For me, it’s also been easily the least-interesting period. All of them entirely competently made, but all displaying the machine-tooled approach that was previously more associated with his brother.

I’m giving you a choice. Either put on these glasses or start eating that trash can.

They Live * (1988) (SPOILERS) Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big fan of They Live – I was a big fan of most things Carpenter at the time of its release – but the manner in which its reputation as a prophecy of (or insight into) “the way things are” has grown is a touch out of proportion with the picture’s relatively modest merits. Indeed, its feting rests almost entirely on the admittedly bravura sequence in which WWF-star-turned-movie-actor Roddy Piper, under the influence of a pair of sunglasses, first witnesses the pervasive influence of aliens among us who are sucking mankind dry. That, and the ludicrously genius sequence in which Roddy, full of transformative fervour, attempts to convince Keith David to don said sunglasses, for his own good. They Live should definitely be viewed by all, for their own good, but it’s only fair to point out that it doesn’t have the consistency of John Carpenter at his very, very best. Nada : I have come here to chew bubblegum and kick a

Ladies and gentlemen, this could be a cultural misunderstanding.

Mars Attacks! (1996) (SPOILERS) Ak. Akk-akk! Tim Burton’s gleefully ghoulish sci-fi was his first real taste of failure. Sure, there was Ed Wood , but that was cheap, critics loved it, and it won Oscars. Mars Attacks! was BIG, though, expected to do boffo business, and like more than a few other idiosyncratic spectaculars of the 1990s ( Last Action Hero , Hudson Hawk ) it bombed BIG. The effect on Burton was noticeable. He retreated into bankable propositions (the creative and critical nadir perhaps being Planet of the Apes , although I’d rate it much higher than the likes of Alice in Wonderland and Dumbo ) and put the brakes on his undisciplined goth energy. Something was lost. Mars Attacks! is far from entirely successful, but it finds the director let loose with his own playset and sensibility intact, apparently given the licence to do what he will.

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982) (SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek , but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan . That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

It's something trying to get out.

The Owl Service (1969-70) I may have caught a glimpse of Channel 4’s repeat of  The Owl Service  in 1987, but not enough to stick in the mind. My formative experience was Alan Garner’s novel, which was read several years earlier during English lessons. Garner’s tapestry of magical-mythical storytelling had an impact, with its possession theme and blending of legend with the here and now. Garner depicts a Britain where past and present are mutable, and where there is no safety net of objective reality; life becomes a strange waking dream. His fantasy landscapes are both attractive and disturbing; the uncanny reaching out from the corners of the attic.  But I have to admit that the themes of class and discrimination went virtually unnoticed in the wake of such high weirdness. The other Garner books I read saw young protagonists transported to fantasy realms. The resonance of  The Owl Service  came from the fragmenting of the rural normal. When the author notes that he neve

Isn’t sugar better than vinegar?

Femme Fatale (2002) (SPOILERS) Some have attempted to rescue Femme Fatale from the dumpster of critical rejection and audience indifference with the claim that it’s De Palma’s last great movie. It isn’t that by a long shot, but it might rank as the last truly unfettered display of his obsessions and sensibilities, complete with a ludicrous twist – so ludicrous, it’s either a stroke of genius or mile-long pile up.

Beer is for breakfast around here. Drink or begone.

Cocktail (1988) (SPOILERS) When Tarantino claims the 1980s (and 1950s) as the worst movie decade, I’m inclined to invite him to shut his butt down. But should he then flourish Cocktail as Exhibit A, I’d be forced to admit he has a point. Cocktail is a horrifying, malignant piece of dreck, a testament to the efficacy of persuasive star power on a blithely rapt and undiscerning audience. Not only is it morally vacuous, it’s dramatically inert. And it relies on Tom’s toothy charms to a degree that would have any sensitive soul rushed to the A&E suffering from toxic shock (Tom’s most recently displayed toothy charms will likely have even his staunchest devotees less than sure of themselves, however, as he metamorphoses into your favourite grandma). And it was a huge box office hit.

Twenty dwarves took turns doing handstands on the carpet.

Bugsy (1991) (SPOILERS) Bugsy is very much a Warren Beatty vanity project (aren’t they all, even the ones that don’t seem that way on the surface?), to the extent of his playing a title character a decade and a half younger than him. As such, it makes sense that producer Warren’s choice of director wouldn’t be inclined to overshadow star Warren, but the effect is to end up with a movie that, for all its considerable merits (including a script from James Toback chock full of incident), never really feels quite focussed, that it’s destined to lead anywhere, even if we know where it’s going.