CHRISTMAS CINEMA: Trading Places (1983)

In Italy, Trading Places is shown on TV every Christmas Eve, becoming a classic everyone can love. Here, it’s not remembered as a holiday film. Yet it is — a parable about how much money really matters within a week or so of time within the lives of two very different men.

Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) has the benefits of a great upbringing and Ivy League education. Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) is street smart from the wrong side of the tracks.

The Duke brothers, Randolph and Mortimer (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), come from old money and have been on the stock exchange since it opened. They debate nature versus nurture and decide to switch the social roles of our two protagonists and bet on the results.

In less time than you’d expect, Valentine has easily accepted the upper crust lifestyle while showing class and manners that Louis lacked. And the richer of our heroes descends into petty theft and alcoholism — again all in the span of several hours. He also discovers what love is all about from Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Ophelia. And Denholm Elliot’s character, Coleman, goes from butler to accomplice to friend.

Along the way, the film has plenty of great character roles, too. Paul Gleason continues his career-long mastery of playing complete dicks. Jim Belushi shoes up at a party, Jamie Lee’s sister Kelly (who is also is Michele Soavi’s The Sect) shows up, as does Frank Oz, Bo Diddley and Al Franken, years before he’d go into politics and take inappropriate photos.

The leads work so well together that you wish they’d made several films together. It’s a natural, breezy film, one that continues to deliver on its basic premise. This movie is a success on every level, with Roger Ebert favorably comparing it to comedies of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. The only misstep it takes is in the backward 1980’s usage of homophobic slurs — they really take you out of the film.

Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche are my favorite part of the film. Ameche had not made a movie in 13 years before this film! Their characters would return in 1988’s Coming to America when Prince Akeem gives them money to get off the streets.
John Landis really created something special here and it’s packed with subtle allusions to his past films as well as tiny easter eggs that appear in all of his films, like the ape that calls back to past Landis films Schlock and The Kentucky Fried Movie, Louis having the same prison number as Jake Blues from The Blues Brothers, and Murphy breaking the fourth wall.
While we may not celebrate this film as a holiday favorite in the U.S., I’d advise you buck the trend. It does so well what many movies of this era do: set up a basic premise and then let hijinks ensue.

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