Film Advent Calendar- Day 16: Trading Places (1983)
But is it really a Christmas movie?
Well, okay. It is set at Christmas (and a bit of New Year thrown in) and features many of your classic Christmas story tropes. Santa Claus, Christmas trees, snow, rags to riches, people saying Merry Christmas to each other etc. The question really should be however, does it have its place(s) among traditional Christmas fare such as Elf, Die Hard or Scrooged? Perhaps. Of one thing there can be no doubt, it is a barnstormer of a comedy and arguably an all time classic.
John Landis, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy were all at their creative peak as they came together to produce this film. A slight riff on the body swap genre with a dash of Scrooge thrown in, Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine. A small time street con man who ends up in jail after crossing paths with Louis Winthorpe III played by Aykroyd. Winthorpe, a more relatable version of Jacob Rees-Mogg is an investor employed by the nefarious Duke brothers. The Duke’s, following a debate on the merits of nature vs nurture place a wager on whether Valentine and Winthorpe could trade places (cue title) and adjust to their new circumstances. Winthorpe, a prissy, spoiled posh boy is thrown out on the streets and is forced to shack up with Ophelia, a street hooker played by rising star Jamie Lee Curtis. Meanwhile, Valentine is given Winthorpe’s former job and home and is required to deal with responsibility for the first time while the Duke’s watch this all play out.
“Do you really think I would let a n****r run this company?”
What follows is a series of hi-jinks in which Winthorpe attempts to get his old life back and Valentine begins to figure out why he was really handed a great job and money out of nowhere. This culminates in Winthorpe gate crashing the office Christmas do in a tatty old Santa costume in an attempt to frame Valentine by planting drugs in his desk. In his final humiliation he is caught red handed and escapes, thereby ending the Duke’s wager. Valentine overhears them gloating about how they planned this all along and that he will be next. He then decides to track down Winthorpe to tell him what he has discovered.
Now I don’t know about you but generally, when actors, particularly Hollywood actors used play drunk, they’d usually wobble for a moment before declaring “oh look, I’m so drunk”. Aykroyd however, throws himself into the part. Staggering down the stairs as he swigs from a flask and belching out words because he can’t speak anymore. The reason the scene on the bus is so good is because we’ve all been on a bus and seen that guy at one point.
Valentine tracks down Winthorpe just as he’s about to take his own life. So far the Duke’s appear to have succeeded. Each character has become the other. One now a down on his luck bum and the other a high flying investor. One’s life has been destroyed and the other feels used and betrayed. Cheery stuff for Christmas eh? The pair of them along with Ophelia and their butler Coleman, played by a clearly sozzled Denholm Elliot, plan their revenge via an elaborate train heist (sort of). The Duke’s hired fixer, the ruthless Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleeson) is carrying a briefcase full of insider information on the stock market which the Duke brothers plan to exploit. They plan to swap the documents with false ones by distracting Beeks in his train carriage.
Valentine comes disguised as a tribal Cameroonian, Winthorpe as a blacked up (yes, you read that right) Rastafarian, Ophelia as a buxom Swedish exchange student (in lederhosen???) and Coleman as a drunken Irish priest because when you have a genuine drunken Irishman on set why not? Beeks immediately sees through their ridiculous scheme and holds them at gunpoint, only to be thwarted by a hairy primate with a raging horn, but enough about James Belushi (see what I did there?).
The politics and the conclusion.
In The Wolf of Wall Street there’s a moment where Leo addresses the audience to let them know that it’s alright if you don’t have a clue about the stock market as few people do. Trading Places could have done with something similar as the finale expects you to actually understand what’s going on, which you don’t. All you really need to know is that by some clever trade fixing our protagonists get the better of the Duke brothers and end up rich men while the Duke’s end up financially ruined (until Coming to America, officially the start of the Landis Cinematic Universe). Because in the 80’s the moral message of every movie was to be happy you must have lots of money.
This seems to jar with the themes of the rest of the movie though. Landis can be accused of many things in this movie regarding sexual or racial politics which definitely date the movie. However, one thing he was definitely ahead of his time was the social aspects of the time. Trading Places opens with a montage of images showing the lives of both rich and poor, highlighting the gap in wealth and equality. Moreover, the film points the finger of blame directly at the rich. Portraying them as malicious, uncaring snobs. Something definitely out of step in Reagan’s America.
And while we’re at it, lets discuss some of the aspects of the film that haven’t aged so well. We’ll begin with Jamie Lee Curtis’ tits. Yes, there they are on full display reminding you that this is an R-Rated film from the 1980’s in the which it was a written requirement to have at least one pair of breasts on screen during the movie. Never mind the fact that this was directed by the guy who made Animal House a few years earlier. This obviously would be problematic had it been made today. The fact that Curtis manages to rise above the blatant exploitation of her body and holds her own among two comedy giants is testament to her acting skills and easy to understand how she became such a huge star off the back of this film.
And yes, the blacking up scene. I feel like this moment has overshadowed what Landis managed to do elsewhere in the film (not forgetting his embrace of black music in the Blues Brothers or making a movie with an all black cast later in Coming to America) by giving Eddie Murphy equal billing to Dan Aykroyd, something very rare in Hollywood at the time (Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder blazed that trail a few years before with Stir Crazy). It’s obvious that neither Murphy nor anyone else at the time found the blacking up offensive although it’d be a different story today of course and it does help emphasis the sheer idiocy of their plan to fool Beeks so for this writer it still works, despite dating the movie it a degree.
So, is it a Christmas movie?
Well, despite having a finale that takes place after the New Year and ending on a tropical island I’d have to say that Trading Places evokes the spirit of many classic Christmas themed movies so it has to be a yes. The theme of redemption lies at its heart. From a street bum turning his back on crime and discovering his inner adult to a rich brat learning humility and the hollowness of privilege. To see or wealthy overlords have their comeuppance and learning that money can’t buy you everything is undoubtedly a universal message. The fact that Trading Places manages to do all of this while being one of the funniest films of the 80’s is pretty amazing and a reminder of a time when John Landis, Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy could seemingly do no wrong.
Now, I fancy a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich.