With the recent snowfall, I’m starting to get in the holiday spirit. Today, I’m celebrating a little early with Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd in Trading Places. There’s nothing like betrayal, penury, and revenge on the Wall Street bigwigs to give life that Christmas twinkle!
Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) is a privileged and successful executive in a ritzy brokerage house, but his even-more-privileged bosses (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) wonder if his success is due to his own efforts or to his upbringing and surroundings. With the callous insouciance of the mindbogglingly wealthy, they use Winthorpe’s life and livelihood as a the basis for a brotherly bet: toss him out of his envied position, ruin his reputation, and see if he sinks or swims. In his place, they groom street grifter Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), a smart cookie with little formal education and a mismatched set of social skills, but loads of charisma and life experience.
The plotline is silly and in other hands could easily be stilted and predictable or become a dismissive and superficial buddy comedy, but Murphy and Aykroyd make the whole thing hum along like a beautiful machine. And a machine it is; the film’s clockwork structure owes a good deal to the screwball comedies of the 30s and 40s, and particularly to the social-class comedies like The Lady Eve or My Man Godfrey.
Trading Places is also a buddy movie, and it’s marvelous to watch Aykroyd and Murphy let their incompatible types find the niches and nooks of compatibility between them. They inhabit their characters so fully, imbue them with real depth and intelligence and humor, never letting them feel like caricatures or plot vehicles. The story does deal with a great many racial and social stereotypes, and imperfectly acknowledges them as stereotypes, but the central parts are so marvelously cast, so intensely alive and real, that I can forgive it its failings.
Also, it’s freakin’ funny, so there’s that.