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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.


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