Netflix Movie Month: "Trading Places" Review

Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures

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Rating: R (adult situations/language, some violence, drug use, brief nudity)
Length: 116 minutes
Release Date: June 8, 1983
Directed by: John Landis
Genre: Comedy

The early 1980s were Eddie Murphy's playground, and no movie exemplifies his special brand of humor more than 1983's "Trading Places." His second major motion picture placed him in the role of Billy Ray Valentine, a street hustler and con man thrust into a totally new lifestyle to help win a bet between two wealthy tycoons discussing the merits of nature versus nurture. Not only does "Trading Places" touch on Darwinian concepts, it's also a satire against rampant capitalism in the Reagan era and touches upon the then-contemporary hot topics of racism and sexism.

Louis Winthorpe III seems to have it all. He's the managing director of a successful commodities brokerage, he's engaged to the niece of the firm's owners, and he takes full advantage of all the perks that come with his station in life. Billy Ray Valentine, on the other hand, is on the opposite end of the social spectrum. He panhandles for a living, cons people with stories about losing his legs in Vietnam, and is in constant run-ins with the police. After a brief encounter with Randolph and Mortimer Duke, Valentine is arrested and placed in a Philadelphia jail during the cold of winter. Landis does an excellent job of setting up the basic characters in the first few minutes of the film, which makes the events that follow even more hilarious. Murphy plays the role of Valentine perfectly, and his dialogue seems only somewhat scripted. He was still a cast member on "Saturday Night Live" at this time, so critics were unsure how his talent would translate to the big screen. His role in "Trading Places" helped propel him to superstardom. Dan Aykroyd is spot-on with his portrayal of an overeducated snob, and Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche are impeccable as the wealthy, racist heads of Duke & Duke.

The Duke brothers are in an argument about whether the individual qualities of a person are as important as personal experiences, and they make a wager to test the merits of heredity versus environment. In Winthorpe and Valentine, they see the perfect people on who to base their wager, so they set in motion events to change the lives of both men. The Dukes frame Winthorpe and set Valentine up in his position. After losing his job, finances, fiancé, and friends, Winthorpe hits rock bottom. Being given a life of luxury and perceived business acumen, Valentine flourishes. While in a compromising position, Valentine overhears the Dukes discussing the outcome of their wager. Angry at being treated as an experiment, he explains the Dukes' bet to Winthorpe, and the two set out to put things right. One of the highlights of the film—the fact that the wager was for a single dollar—highlights the disconnect Landis was trying to show between the wealthy and the poor under the policies of Reaganomics. He also touches on the fact that racism still exists between various classes, and Winthorpe's relationship with an intelligent prostitute underscores the sexism that was prevalent in the early '80s.

Valentine, Winthorpe, his manservant Coleman, and the call girl Ophelia—played expertly by Jamie Lee Curtis—hatch a plan to turn the tables on the Dukes, and they're able to intercept and distort some documents that Randolph and Mortimer plan to use in an insider-trading scam. To obtain these documents, the conspirators dress as a Rastafarian, a graduate student from Cameroon, a busty Swedish girl, and an alcoholic priest. This scene on a New Year's Eve train ride is one of the most outrageous and well-written in the film, and the costumes help it again touch on class structure, feminism and racism. With orange juice futures on the line, the Dukes are duped into losing their entire fortune. Billy Ray and Winthorpe are the recipients of this reversal of fortune, and they make sure the Dukes witness the same bet for a single dollar.

With the Dukes now penniless, the four people affected by the original bet are now vindicated, and they are able to live a life of luxury. Throughout the film, Landis does an excellent job of making moviegoers have different feelings about the various characters in the film. By the end, everyone gets what they deserve, and all is seemingly right with the world. Whether or not this film accurately answers the question at the heart of the Dukes original debate is questionable, and whether "Trading Places" should be viewed as a satire is dubious. What is true? It's a two-hour romp that showcases the talents of Murphy, Aykroyd, and Curtis during their heydays early in the decadent '80s.

Rating: 3 out of 5