Sunday, December 19, 2021

Trading Places

Among the comedy classics that I've never blogged about before is Trading Places. The Starz/Encore family of channels has had the rights to it, and over Thanksgiving, I had a free preview of those, so I decided to DVR it and watch it to do a post here sometime. It's got another airing tomorrow at 12:14 PM on StarzEncore (or three hours later if you only have the west coast feed), and a few more times later in the week.

Dan Aykroyd plays Louis Winthorpe III, one of those snooty Main Line Philadelphia types who would have been a wedding guest in a movie like The Philadelphia Story or at the parties in a movie like The Young Philadelphians. He works in commodities trading for the firm of Duke & Duke, run by Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke, and has a fiancée Penelope who is a member of the Duke famiiy as well as a butler in Coleman (Denholm Elliott). He's never known anything less than the best, and as the managing director of the company, he's responsible for saving the elder Dukes a ton of money trading things like pork belly futures at just the right time.

Definitely not of that social class is Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). He's a small-time con artist, pretending to be a blind amputee in order to get people to give him charitable donations, spending his free time at the bar where he's apparently run up quite the tab. And, of course, he's black, although the elder Dukes would call him a Negro if only because that shows how out of touch they are.

But the two Duke brothers have debates about things like nature vs. nurture. So when Billy Ray and Winthorpe accidentally run into each other outside the entrance to the Duke & Duke building, the two hatch an idea. They'll spring Billy Ray out of the municipal jail (Winthorpe having thought Billy Ray was out to steal the payroll when their collision was purely accidental) and give him Winthorpe's life, while using their influence to get Winthorpe strung up on completely bogus charges that he'll have no way of defending himself against. Will Winthorpe turn to criminality? Will Billy Ray become more refined? That's what the bet is about.

After Winthorpe spends a night in jail, he's bailed out, but a mysterious Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason) pays the hooker Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) to screw up Winthorpe's relationship with Penelope. Ophelia at least learns that in Winthorpe's past, he had a large bank account and credit cards that have been frozen because of his legal issues. So she, being the stereotypical "prostitute with a heart of gold" that was already parodied back in Paris When It Sizzles, puts Winthorpe up.

Billy Ray, meanwhile, does start becoming more refined, showing some regret when he invites all the people from the lower-class bar to a party at his new digs only for them to treat the place like a dump. He also has some decidedly different advice about why the market might act the way it does, although his advice turns out to be just as right as Winthorpe's was, only for different reasons. However, Billy Ray overhears the Duke brothers talking about the wager, and figures out that half of what's going on, leading him to take Winthorpe in as an ally.

There's another half to what the Dukes are doing, however. The aforementioned Clarence has been cut some extremely large checks that both Winthorpe and Billy Ray noticed in payroll and red-flagged, although the two elder Dukes have excuses for those checks. In fact, Beeks is supposed to steal a top-secret Department of Agriculture report about orange juice futures; having said information early will enable them to corner the market and make a killing. Winthorpe and Billy Ray figure out that plot as well, and work to foil it.

Trading Places is funny and mostly works, although it's going to require you to suspend a lot of disbelief. I find it impossible to believe that any random schlub picked off the street would be able to understand the nuances of the futures market, for example. And I can't think of any way that somebody like Coleman would immediately turn on Winthorpe, whom he clearly likes, just because the Dukes have a wager.

The screenplay, as well as director John Landis, also avoid social commentary in all but a superficial way, which could be either a positive or a negative depending on your expectations. There's certainly a lot of ground for trenchant commentary that is pretty much ignored. But at the same time, it's the sort of commentary where it would be very easy to fall into the trap of making it preachy and drowning any of the comedy. The one interesting thing I did notice was the contrast between black Billy Ray being a petty criminal and white Ophelia who, although she's a prostitute, is shown as saving money for retirement and having a substantial sum to invest for the climactic scene.

Make of all that what you will, Trading Places is still mostly a pretty darn funny movie with a chance for everybody to shine.

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