Rarely has a comedy fit its era as aptly and perfectly as Trading Places. A comedic triumph for all involved – supporting figures as well as stars – it couldn’t possibly be a product of anything but Reagan’s America. It stands as an ode to capitalism, in which the good guys stop a pair of evil insider traders by, um, insider trading a little better than they. Materialism stands triumphant, wrapped in the sheen of rags-to-riches dreaming that says anybody can become wealthy if they just want it badly enough.
In other words, welcome back to 1983. Director John Landis uses Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper as inspiration for his internecine bit of class warfare, starring two of the funniest people on the planet at the time. Dan Aykroyd gets the straight-man duties, playing swinish commodities broker Louis Winthorpe III. Eddie Murphy plays his foil: fast-talking (and not especially competent) con man Billy Ray Valentine. A casual bet by Winthorpe’s awful bosses (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) plops Billy Ray in Louis’s swanky home and job, while Louis finds himself homeless and destitute on the mean streets of Philadelphia.
Most of the laughs come from the resulting fish-out-of-water mayhem. Aykroyd gets the best of it, as his cartoonish blue-blood suffers all manner of indignities when forced to actually fend for himself (and finally shows us his human side in the bargain). Murphy has less to work with in terms of material, but responds with such fierce charisma and innate humor that it hardly matters. They didn’t have much screen time together (Aykroyd was still reeling from the death of John Belushi), and yet they still felt like part of an organic whole rather than performers in a separate film.
The back-up players do as much as the stars to make Trading Places work. Jamie Lee Curtis infamously bared her breasts as whore-with-a-heart-of-gold Ophelia, but it was her sly grin and knowing sense of humor that helped her break out of scream queen purgatory here. Denholm Elliot pulls off a similar trick, playing Aykroyd’s butler with a marvelously perplexed deadpan that forever vanquished the Masterpiece Theater vibes that followed him around like a lost puppy. Bellamy and Ameche, both long-time Hollywood pros, introduced themselves to a whole new generation of fans (their curtain call in Coming to America is still one of my all-time favorite screen moments). And there’s no one we’d rather watch getting raped by a gorilla than one of the late Paul Gleason’s patented snarling creeps.
Both they and the humor hold up extremely well to multiple viewings. The dialogue becomes more quotable and funny with each passing year, and even still carries a certain edge to it (see “gorilla rape,” above). Time capsule qualities aside, the storyline carries universal tropes that simply don’t age. No matter when you’re living, something about the rich and powerful just makes us curl our lips, especially when their wealth arrives via massive greed. At the same time, we envy the seeming ease of their lives and secretly hope to get there on our own.
It’s a twisted formula, but it’s as old as human nature, and Trading Places mainlines right into the core of it. Three of our four protagonists come from the underclass – a hooker, a hustler and a lifelong manservant – and end up triumphing over the one percent with help from a former millionaire who sees the error of his ways. We were aware of the flaws and hypocrisies of the equation even then, but we still couldn’t resist it. We just dug these characters too much, and it felt right for them to enjoy a little reward for their travails… even if said reward was fundamentally wrong. It’s hard to feel indignant when you’re laughing your ass off, and Trading Places doesn’t falter for an instant. Thirty years later, it hasn’t lost a single giggle.