(Alternate Title: Ruminations on Contemporary Comedy vis-à-vis Trading Places in Retrospect)
1983’s Trading Places is a funny comedy. I recognize the redundancy but bear with me for a moment. Comedy as a genre has undergone shifts in American cinema, from silent slapsticks to play-based farces, from situational romps to vulgar gross-outs as certain films break molds, break box-office, and are copied to diminishing returns until something breaks the established conventions and etc. Every genre of film goes through this, with even the staid romantic-comedy undergoing shifts to “respect” the shifting gender roles of the modern era. The superhero genre is doing it too, with three major studios forking in three different directions (Marvel has built a streamlined franchise and emphasized the fun of a comic book universe, DC has banked on big-budgeted grit to mixed results, and Sony continues to trundle along with no real purpose).
My point is simply that a comedy like Trading Places, despite 30 years of shifting entertainment, is funny – and in a way that really isn’t done anymore.
This may have less to do with comedic trends than the fact that it’s hard to write good jokes. Improvisation and male-bonding dominate much of our comedy today (I mean the successful ones like what Apatow produces, not the parody monsters churned out in the Seltzer-Friedberg model). Hanging out with Seth Rogen and James Franco does seem like a good time, and Ron Burgundy will always make me smile, for it is their manners and buffoonery that make their films comedies. It may seem odd to say this, but watching Trading Places one is reminded that Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd are actors playing roles. Both are comedians in their own rights of course but they are working with a script (a good one) and modeling their performances on that. I mean to take nothing from Will Ferrell and his frequent costars, but our current comedy genre is much stronger on a scene by scene and actor by actor basis. The sum is always much weaker than its parts.
Today’s comedy film may introduce us to a character and his band of friends, may touch upon his job as it impacts his forthcoming antics, and then commence with the bantering and the blows to the crotch, substance abuse, pausing momentarily for someone, perhaps the protagonist, to remark that things have gotten out of hand. 2009’s The Hangover and 2012’s Ted followed this template to a T. Both films are packed with humor but the plots are little more than macguffins to usher us through the sketches in an orderly fashion. Is this a problem? No, it’s not a problem. Is it easier to do than build an entire story from the ground up and make it funny? Yes, it is. Does that mean our current comedies are lazier than those of yore?
Well I’m not speaking in iambic pentameter and Shakespeare’s comedies would settle for nothing less. Scientifically, I can blame the second law of thermodynamics for this lapse. Which is a roundabout way of saying I’m just wasting your time by blowing hot air and I should get on with the review already.
Pointedly, this is how I frame the review, because I could not stop thinking about how much I was enjoying the story of Trading Places as much as I was enjoying the jokes. Dan Aykroyd plays the upper-crust Louis Winthorpe III, the managing director of Duke & Duke, a commodities brokerage in Philadelphia. One day he is “accosted” by street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), which leads to Billy’s arrest. Winthorpe’s employers are repulsively rich and, out of boredom, decide to engage in a social experiment. The Duke brothers bankrupt Winthorpe and raise Valentine from the streets, installing him in swanky new digs and with Winthorpe’s butler to boot. They wager that they can turn the goody-good Winthorpe into a criminal and the criminal Valentine into a successful broker.
The film is directed by John Landis, a man we can consider a cinematic all-star (ignoring his late ‘90s output), who delightfully toes the line between situational comedy and outright absurdism. (Much of the comedy comes from the fish out of water elements but the entire gorilla on the train sequence with Al Franken and Jim Belushi is just preposterous.) This was only Murphy’s second film role and he is not quite the Eddie Murphy the latter ‘80s would come to know and love so well; his talent is unmistakeable but his reserve is almost odd. Also of note is the frequently topless Jamie Lee Curtis as just the nicest hooker in America, and that’s very nice too.
What struck me off guard was how much punch this film has. The Dukes are outright racists, Murphy asks them point blank if they’re “faggots,” all of the underclass are African-American, and at Winthorpe’s lowest point he genuinely attempts suicide, twice. Trading Places retains the bite of the 1970s with an early ‘80s gloss to buff the social commentary. The film is at times blatant and at times subtle, and in the same line-toeing fashion as its absurdist/traditional elements. An example: While the Dukes are talking on the phone, the screen flashes to Mortimer, to their caller, to Randolph, and to the caller. God bless the rental, because pausing or rewinding allows you to catch that each man has a framed photo on his desk. For Mortimer, it’s Ronald Reagan; for Randolph, Richard Nixon. I’ll put politics aside but we can agree that these are the role-models of the villains of this picture.
Oliver Stone’s Wall Street was still four years away and the ‘80s had not quite achieved the level of “good greed” that it became infamous for, but Trading Places is an unabashed “take that” to the wealthy establishment. I was happy to find that after an internet search I am not the only one to be confused at how our protagonists outmaneuver the Dukes in the penultimate scene, but though this confusion is common, it scarcely diminishes general appreciation of the film or the funny (I can tell you it has something to do with short selling).
Comedy is an art form and it’s hard to pull off well. If you can stick a few buds in a room and get them to grin and giggle their way into your heart, you’re laughing and that’s all you need. But I will say Trading Places is a thoroughly entertaining feature, refreshing even, replete with story, good guys, bad guys, blatant but bona fide social commentary, and Principal Vernon in a gorilla suit.
Trading Places (1983)
Directed by John Landis
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