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October 14, 2014

Trading Places

by Franz Patrick


Trading Places (1983)
★★ / ★★★★

Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche), aging millionaires with too much money on their bank accounts, have a bet. Randolph believes that he can turn a conman, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), whose current scheme is to pretend to be a blind man and a cripple so passersby will feel sorry and give him money, into a respectable commodity broker and an uppity commodity broker, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), who is very good at his job, into a contemptuous criminal. On the other hand, Mortimer believes that such a complete transformation is impossible because everyone is born to live a specific lifestyle.

“Trading Places,” directed by John Landis, is marginally funny when it doesn’t try so hard to impress and not at all amusing when it goes through great measures to elicit a laugh. The first and last thirty minutes are effective. The set-up is interesting because it plays upon the classic nature versus nurture debate with enough unexpected lines of dialogue that proves consistently witty—up to a point—which shows promise that the material can really take off as a comedy of manners as well as a social critique of the rich and the poor. We all have a certain perception of the very poor and the very rich. So when Billy Ray starts to steal expensive trinkets in front of people telling him that he does not need to because all of it belong to him anyway, it is absolutely hilarious.

Seeing Murphy and Aykroyd eventually playing against type makes a handful of scenes that do not work, for example Aykroyd’s character pulling out a gun at a Christmas party and threatening to shoot people with it, somewhat tolerable. Likewise, the payoff is engaging because Billy Ray and Winthorpe spend the majority of the time either apart or arguing. It is refreshing to see them interact on a different level and act as the puppeteers in the philosophical game.

The middle portion, however, is a boring wasteland of tired gags with an occasional funny line or two. Even then I was not sure if something genuinely funny was thrown onto my lap or if I just wanted to laugh to shatter the tedium. Furthermore, in order for us to feel sorry for a character, the screenplay relies on clichés.

Winthorpe is shown twice or thrice standing in the rain while looking like a wet, abandoned sheepdog. There is nothing funny about it nor is it an effective way for the audience to sympathize with him. Even though he is a bit spoiled, we already feel bad for him the moment he is framed, sent to prison, and all of his hard work is taken away.

And while I liked the idea of Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a prostitute hired to hasten Winthorpe’s downfall but the two actually end up liking each other, there is not enough dramatic pull between the couple. When they kiss, it is awkwardly charming but we are at a loss in terms of what exactly they like about one another. In other words, they are not written as real people. The premise can be contrived but it does not mean that the character must be that way, too.

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