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Trading Places (1983)

Paramount Home Entertainment
DVD Released: 6/5/2007

All Ratings out of
Movie:  1/2

Review by Mike Long, Posted on 6/13/2007

Today, the idea of a Saturday Night Live cast member (or several at once) starring in a film is no big deal. However, this was a new idea in the show's early days and it took a few years for the "Not Ready for Prime Time Players" to make the jump to the big screen. Once it happened, it seemed very commonplace. It then became accepted for actors from the show to work together in films. Day Aykroyd made The Blues Brothers and Neighbors with fellow SNL alum John Belushi prior to Belushi's death. 1983's Trading Places introduced a new idea, as it had Saturday Night Live cast members from two generations, Aykroyd along-side Eddie Murphy, appear together in a film.

Trading Places follows the lives of several people in Philadelphia. Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke are the wealthy owners of the Duke & Duke, a commodities brokerage firm. Randolph is very interested in the idea of "Nature vs. Nurture" and the two are constantly arguing this concept. So, they decide to conduct and experiment. They will ruin the life of one of their pampered employees, while at the same time giving a destitute person a life of leisure. They will then see which one succeeds.

The experiment begins when Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) is accused stealing money from his colleagues and of being a drug-dealer. This wealthy man suddenly finds himself homeless, unemployed, and rejected by his fiancee. Meanwhile, the Duke's take low-life street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) and give him Winthorpe's house, car, job, and butler, Coleman (Denholm Elliot). Torn from their normal lives, the two men must learn to adjust. Louis is befriended by a prostitute named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), who believes his story and agrees to help get him back on his feet. At first, Billy Ray wants to exploit his new lifestyle, but soon learns to protect his wealth. When Louis and Billy Ray eventually learn about the Duke's scheme, they pool their resources for revenge.

On the whole, Eddie Murphy is thought of as a comedic actor (or simply a comedian). But a look back at his first feature film, 48 Hrs, reveals that movie to be a gritty Walter Hill action film which has some funny moments. Likewise, Trading Places is social satire which just happens to have some humorous scenes. I hadn't seen this film in its unedited entirety in several years, and I was quite surprised to find that the movie isn't as funny as I'd remembered. Don't get me wrong, it has some classic comedic moments, but on the whole, the movie is too much of a downer to be considered a comedy. While the plight of Louis does contain some black humor, there's also a very desperate and eventually violent side to it. The last act of the film has some laughs, but it becomes more of a suspense thriller.

All of that isn't mean to sound negative, it's simply a word of warning to those, like me, who saw the film in theaters all those years ago, and remember it as a comedy classic. As for the comedy, there's plenty of that too. Director John Landis was already a master of subversive comedy by this point in his career and that kind of thinking is abundant here. Landis has become for his use of breaking the fourth wall -- having the actor's acknowledge or interact with the audience -- and no moment better defines this as when Billy Ray looks into the camera following the "Bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich" line. Murphy's natural energy works well here, and best scenes are in the first half of the film, when mouthy street hustler Billy Ray interacts with the wealthy. Aykroyd takes a 180 turn from Elwood Blues by playing the upper-crust Louis Winthorpe and he does so with such ease, that we only see him as this rich snob.

If for nothing else, Trading Places must be celebrated for its cast. Watching the film today, it's hard to believe the number of talented and familiar faces in the cast. Along with Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, and Denholm Elliot, we have Paul Gleason, Al Franken, Jim Belushi, Frank Oz, and the dad from Beverly Hills, 90210. This cast lends to the sophisticated air of the film and helps to elevate Trading Places above the other comedies of its day.

In my recent review for Coming to America, I mentioned that Hollywood used to make R-rated comedies for adults, and Trading Places is a perfect example of this trend. To this day, I still don't know what the hell is happening in the commodities trading scene (Did I miss something? Is there a missing scene where they bought all of the orange juice?), but that doesn't stop me from enjoying the film. Trading Places may not be a laugh riot, but it's a solid film with funny moments and a smart satiric undertone.

Trading Places steals from itself on DVD courtesy of Paramount Home Entertainment. This DVD replaces the prior release from 2002. This new DVD is letterboxed at and the transfer is enhanced for 16 x 9 TVs. The image looks very nice, as the picture is sharp and clear, showing no grain or defects from the source material. The image is a bit flat when compared to modern films, but the picture is crisp and has a nice depth. Colors look fine and artifacting is kept to a minimum. The DVD features a Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track which provides clear dialogue and sound effects. The stereo effects are good, but the surround effects are far too discrete and infrequent.

This new "Looking Good, Feeling Good" Edition contains several extras. "Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places" (18 minutes) features comments from John Landis, Jamie Lee Curtis, Dan Aykroyd, producer George Folsey, Jr, and writers Tim Harris & Herschel Weingrod. (Murphy appears only in archive interviews.) This featurette offers an overview of the cast and characters, as well as the film's production. Landis has the most frequent comments and some very interesting things to say about the movie. "Trading Stories" (8 minutes) has interviews with Landis, Curtis, Murphy, and Aykroyd from 1983. "The Deleted Scene" (3 minutes), is just that, as we get a look at an excised scene with Paul Gleason. Costume designer Deborah Nadoolman is profiled in "Dressing the Part" (6 minutes). We get comments from real commodities traders in "The Trade in Trading Places" (5 minutes). John Landis introduces the "Industry Promotional Piece" (4 minutes) which is a short with Murphy and Aykroyd shot to sell the film. The best extra is the "Trivia Pop-up" which plays throughout the film, giving the kind of info that we'd usually get from a commentary.

Review Copyright 2007 by Mike Long