A riff on Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places is one of the great buddy comedies of the 1980s.
Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd), a young, rich snot-head who trades commodities, has an uber-preppy fiancé (Kristin Holby) and a butler named Coleman (Denholm Elliot) who secretly despises the rich people he works for.
In truth, Coleman works for Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke, Louis’ bosses. The Dukes are the kind of awful rich people who mess with people just for the hell of it, and they decide to wager what would happen if Louis and a street hustler name Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) traded places. They conspire with Coleman and a shady character named Beeks (Paul Gleason) to make the switcheroo happen.
Framed for theft and drug-dealing, Louis’ downfall is swift. He ends up crashing with a prostitute (of the gold-hearted variety, natch) improbably named Ophelia (Jaimie Lee Curtis). Meanwhile, Billy Ray begins to feel pride of ownership in his new home and shows himself adept at commodity trading. When the two finally figure out it’s the Dukes behind the switch, they team up to exact revenge.
The story takes place during the holiday season in Philadelphia. The opening is one of my favorites in film, with a montage of people getting ready for a new day in the varied ethnic neighborhoods of the city. While it’s in many ways a loving view of the city, it also shows the schism between rich and poor (including homeless people sleeping outside during the winter) and emphasizes the limited sphere of Louis’ life. He’s ripe for a fall. Watching that fall is both horrifying and hilarious.
With Ophelia and Coleman (who is forgiven for his part in the plot awfully fast, I think) Louis and Billy Ray plan to ruin the Dukes financially by stealing inside information from Beeks. Aboard a train on New Year’s Eve, they wear absurd disguises that wouldn’t fool a child (i.e. Louis in absurd, not to mention offensive, blackface and Ophelia in lederhosen with a terrible Swedish accent).
On the train there’s a New Year’s Eve costume party in progress. (Do these parties happen on Amtrak trains as a general rule? I’ve no idea, though the one time I traveled by Amtrak I did happen on a car full of people drinking scotch from gallon bottles at 10 o’clock in the morning, so I’m guessing Amtrak is used a lot for parties, impromptu or otherwise.)
One especially exuberant party attendee (Jim Belushi) in a gorilla costume becomes a critical player in the action. When Beeks figures out what’s going on, he hustles the costumed quartet through the train at gun point. Ending up in a storage area with a live caged gorilla (don’t ask) said gorilla is at first entranced by the Belushi character appearing in costume and then becomes violent when Beeks conks him on the head.
O.K., Beeks is portrayed as a genuinely awful person, but I’m not sure he is deserving of his fate of being taped up in the gorilla costume and caged with the real (and very randy) gorilla.
Be that as it may, it’s the final section of the film that after more than 30 years of repeat viewings is still not totally clear to me. Louis and Billy Ray arrive at the commodities exchange to make certain the Dukes lose all their money while enriching themselves (and Ophelia and Coleman). It has something to do with buying low and selling high, and fooling the Dukes into doing it the opposite way.
Bellamy and Ameche (who was in the midst of a career comeback during the 80s) are stupendous as the odious Duke brothers. One could even see them as a prediction of the rise of another pair of odious super-rich brothers. Aykroyd and Murphy, who have little to do with each other until two thirds of the way into the film, make a terrific pair once the characters team up. Curtis brings her special edge to a basically cliched role, and Elliott is perfect as the butler who thinks his employers are scumbags.
Like many comedies of the 1980s, Trading Places is concerned with big business and big money. While the main characters end up fabulously wealthy, the villains are consigned to the agonies and humiliations of the poor.
In fact, I can’t think of anything more 1980s than heroes vanquishing rich a-holes and repairing to the Caribbean to become, well, rich a-holes.