Trading Places (1983)

This was one of those movies from my youth that I’ve been somewhat hesitant to take the kids to go see. For example, we skipped Ferris Beuller this year because, well, it’s okay, it’s fun, but I don’t know if it’s as great as it’s made out to be. I am breaking down and taking the kids to the next showing of The Breakfast Club, though I’m reserved about how well it will play to the kids. And while I consider myself a John Landis fan—aficionado, even, of his early work—I remembered this movie fondly but not as “a classic”.

But it actually still works really, really well. In fact, I think it’s aged far better than Landis’ Animal House, perhaps because it relies much less on shock value. I mean, it’s a preposterous film in that ’80s way: The rich guys are no different from the poor guys, except through circumstance and a trivial amount of education, and the really rich guys are, of course pure evil, while the regular rich guys are shallow and faithless.

Even though they only did it once!

There was a time when putting Aykroyd and Murphy in a film together was like printing money.

But everyone’s so gosh darn likable. Including the evil Mortimer and Randolph, who are caricatures of the worst sort, but ever so charmingly played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy. Our heroes are in their respective primes, too: Dan Aykroyd as the callow young investor, doing the schtick he’d honed to a fine point on “Saturday Night Live”, for example.

What can you say about young Eddie Murphy, following up his smash hit 48 Hours—back when Nick Nolte was more than a mug shot!—with this, another smash hit? Well, the kids probably said it best: “He was so funny!” Yes, he certainly was, and this was really their first experience with that. The take he does to the camera when Bellamy says “And this is bacon, like you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich” is priceless. (Classic Landis mild 4th wall breakage, as in Animal House.)

Perfect expression.

Perfect timing.

Jamie Lee Curtis. I remembered she took her top off for this—also classic Landis—but I don’t remember thinking it was such a big deal. When she did it in this showing, the audience actually gasped, that’s how perfect her body is. And of course, she’s funny and smart and charming on top of being The Body. I mean, she pulls off being The Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, for crying out loud.

By the way, pretty topless gals were a common feature—a requirement even—for comedies in the late ’70s/early ’80s. Now, this sort of exploitation is a hate crime. You’d just never see it. The fashions are so bad, though, that the real hate crime is having the women not naked.


Awful dress, and not the worst by far. (Also, see you next Wednesday.)

Speaking of hate crimes, Dan Aykroyd wears the worst blackface in this movie since Gene Wilder’s in The Silver Streak. But the real offense today, I think, would be Eddie Murphy‘s disguise late in the film as a Muslim African exchange student. Along with Denholm Elliot’s drunk Irish priest and Curtis’ Austrian/can-only-do-a-bad-Swedish-accent disguise, the whole thing would just be problematic today. And it was so goofy and over-elaborate at the time—we used to call it comedy—that of course nobody took offense to any of it.

John Landis at his peak. He would follow this up with the tragic Twilight Zone episode that would basically cave in his career (though he’d continue to do some fine work up until even a few years ago—his two “Masters of Horror” episodes were among the best and really had his style and sense of humor. Best output of screenwriting team Harris and Weingrod (Twins, Kindergarten Cop). Oscar nomination for Casa ‘gique favorite Elmer Bernstein (To Kill A MockingbirdAirplane!). Gratuitous James Belushi. Al Franken when he was part of Franken & Davis, and not a damned Senator.

'cause: Hilarious. I guess.

Also, “guy being sodomized by gorilla” was a standard Landis trope back then.

Arleen Sorkin, who would go on to have a TV career in the ’80s that wound up with her being the voice and inspiration for Harley Quinn. Gratuitous Bo Diddley. In a nice twist, Dan Aykroyd’s upper-crust girlfriend is played by Jamie Lee Curtis’ sister Kelly. Gratuitous Frank Oz, a staple in Landis films. Paul Gleeson as the heavy, who would go on to be the doofus deputy chief of police in Die Hard, and the hardass principle in Breakfast Club.

It’s good stuff. And it features Dan Aykroyd wandering through the city of Philadelphia in a santa suit, drunkenly waving a gun around. So it’s a contender to challenge Die Hard as the Best Christmas Film Ever!


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