Saturday, May 26, 2012

Trading Places

All right, it's time to review one of my absolute favorites.  It has a great cast, led by two successful SNL alumni, and a still-in-his-prime John Landis directed.  It's hard to comprehend almost thirty years after its release, but Trading Places could have been pretty terrible.  Even though it was released in 1983, back when Eddie Murphy could do no wrong, he was far from a star; this film was released only six months after his film debut in 48 Hours, and Murphy was still known more for playing Buckwheat than for being a theatrical draw.  Dan Aykroyd was a bigger name than Murphy at the time, but he had only made one good movie (The Blues Brothers) since leaving Saturday Night Live; most of his efforts had actually been pretty terrible --- I'm pretty sure that the only living and mostly sane fan of Doctor Detroit is my own father, and even he admits that it's crap.  Sure, they got John Landis to direct, but his post-Twilight Zone career (that movie was released the same month as Trading Places) was a steep slide down in quality.  This was also Jamie Lee Curtis' first non-horror role.  Trading Places was blessed with having the right actors at the right time in their careers with a director that was still on his A-game; if this had been made a few years earlier or later, we might have had something like Nothing But Trouble.
Laugh while you can, boys.  Comedy is a fickle mistress

Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) Duke are the owners of Duke & Duke, a commodities brokering firm; alike in so many ways --- style, pride, greed, etc. --- the two seem to have only one major difference in opinion: nature vs. nurture.  Randolph is a proponent for nurture; he believes that anyone can succeed in society, if they are given many socioeconomic advantages.  Mortimer believes in breeding; essentially, the cream will always rise up to the top.  But what can they really do to solve this argument? 
I should mention that they had a knife fight to settle bow vs. regular tie
Well, they can test their theories out.  When the company's heir apparent, Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd), had a (moderately) innocent street urchin, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), jailed over a misunderstanding, the Dukes had their two extremes --- Winthorpe was born with a silver spoon in his various orifices, while Valentine was a poor minority from a broken home ---  and the Dukes finally had some suitable test subjects.  Together, the Dukes manage to disgrace Winthorpe, put him in the poor house, and get his friends to forsake him.  They also bring in Billy Ray to manage their company, offering him wealth and self-respect in exchange.
Their explanation for pork bellies cracks me up every time
And nurture wins!  Well, kind of.  Valentine naturally enjoys the high life and Winthorpe doesn't take his fall from grace well.
Best.  Santa.  Ever.
However, just because Billy Ray is good at is new position doesn't mean that the Dukes have any intention of keeping him around; they still see him as gutter trash.  So when Billy Ray overhears the Dukes congratulating themselves on their experiment, he decides to team up with Winthorpe so they can turn the tables on the Dukes.
Above: the scene where that happens.  Not pictured: the table

I absolutely love this cast.  Dan Aykroyd was nearly perfect as a high-born weenie, and his drunken Santa bit makes me smile every time I think about it.  Eddie Murphy was also very good as the street-smart Billy Ray; he doesn't get enough credit for how sympathetic he made his character.  Jamie Lee Curtis was fine as a hooker with an accountant's mind and sliding scale for impropriety.
"Exposition while I undress because boobs"
This is also my favorite Denholm Elliot role --- anyone can play a smart-mouthed manservant (well, any man can), but Elliot walked the line between faithful butler and annoyed house servant beautifully.  Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy were also perfect as the villains; only Michael Douglas plays a money-grubbing bastard better than these two, only he's not funny.  Paul Gleason was also perfectly mean as the Dukes' hired hand; Gleason has always done a great job playing jerks, but this is the only time I can recall where he was a jerk that was not an authority figure.  Those are really the only performances worth noting, although this film is packed with recognizable actors in bit parts.  Giancarlo Esposito was an easily-impressed con, blues legend Bo Diddley didn't care about the time in Gstaad, Bill Cobbs was owed $17 and change by Billy Ray, Frank Oz was a corrupt cop, Al Franken was a stoner, James Belushi was "a gorilla, you fucking clown," James Eckhouse was lucky to get a speaking line, and Stephen Stucker made his only non-Airplane! appearance I am aware of.

I normally don't praise John Landis for the pace of his films, but Trading Places is a rare example of a two hour comedy that doesn't have a portion that drags.  At least some of that credit goes to the screenplay from writing collaborators Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod; the pair seemed to specialize in goofy-ass concept stories (Twins, Kindergarten Cop, Space Jam, etc.), but they managed to make this Prince and the Pauper update seem only highly unlikely instead of batshit crazy.  It is also worth pointing out how much of the humor in Trading Places comes from reactions and not punchlines; that means they wrote this to be an ensemble piece, not a showcase for Murphy and Aykroyd to ham it up, and it actually worked.  While the script was pretty good, it is Landis' ability to edit the film to capture all the comedic beats that makes this movie great.  Without his eye and ear for timing, this script would have been wasted.
The lawyer joke following this is so simple, but so effective

As good as Trading Places is, it isn't exactly a work of art.  I love this script, but the entire scheme to steal the crop reports was incredibly stupid.  Even if you ignore the Halloween-quality costumes the group wears to travel incognito, there is a bigger problem. 
And I'm not talking about the black-face.  This time.
Okay, so the good guys need to trick Clarence Beaks and steal his briefcase, right?  So far, he has personally hired Ophelia and has personally planted evidence on Winthorpe.  Logic would dictate that those two would not be involved in the plan, because he knows what they look like.  The script, however, dictates that Winthorpe --- the pansy-ass white boy --- pose as a Jamaican and Ophelia is dressed like a stereotypical German girl...with a Swedish accent.  Sure, having Coleman pose as a priest and Billy Ray as an African exchange student and having them all sit in the same train car was not exactly a stroke of genius, but there's stupid, and then there's functionally handicapped thinking.
Although I see how they thought she could be useful

That scene is one of the few that treads the line between stupid funny and obnoxiously dumb --- the other is arguably the whole "one gorilla, two gorilla" issue --- but I will commend it for not being dull, at least.  Hell, I actually kind of like it, even though it is SOOOO dumb!  What makes Trading Places a classic for me, though, are the little touches that I notice more and more with every viewing.  Have you ever noticed that Winthorpe's prison numbers are the same as John Belushi's in The Blues Brothers?  How about the other tribute to himself that Landis inserted, his customary "See You Next Wednesday" reference? 
Hint: it's above and left of the nipples
What is that referencing?  I have no idea, but it pops up in most Landis works, for whatever reason.  If you know the story behind it, please leave a comment.  It's not just the Easter eggs in the movie that I enjoy, though.  I have come to love the punchline-free jokes and sayings.  No matter what day of the year it is, if you say "Looking good, Brian," I will inevitably respond with "Feeling good, [whoever you are]."  It's not exactly a gag, but I adore that exchange between characters in the beginning and end of this film.  How about Billy Ray imitating the deep-voiced tough guy?  "Yeah" isn't normally enough to make an impact on me, but this is a wonderful movie for contextual jokes.  This is also one of the few movies that manages to get racist humor exactly right; the racists are so obviously the bad guys, and the things they presume are so inoffensive that I have to laugh at their racist stupidity.  I mean, seriously --- who wouldn't get into a limo with two elderly white dudes offering "whiskey --- all you want"?!?  That's not a racial tendency, that's how you pick up any man between the ages of 18-35.  It blows my mind how funny I find this movie, even though it is relatively light on jokes.  I don't know if it is thanks to the excellent characterization from the script, the spot-on acting from the cast, the excellent editing from the director, or the fantastic orchestral soundtrack (how many comedies can boast that?), but Trading Places is a rare comedy that is clever and stupid and still makes you care about the characters.  This easily makes my top three comedies of all time.

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