“Trading Places” (1983) – 3.5/5 Stars


“Trading Places” is a modern-day “Pygmalion”: a couple old codgers make a bet on whether or not they can turn a homeless con artist from a petty thief to a proper wealthy businessman and the opposite to a prim and proper wealthy young gentleman. More than an opportunity for comedy, this social experiment premise offers genuine insight into class prejudice. So even if the film doesn’t go entirely topsy-turvy, its poignancy — an accomplishment so rare of the comedy genre — warrants “Trading Places” a must-see of ’80s comedy.

Then-Saturday Night Live stars Dan Akyroyd and Eddie Murphy star as Louis Winthorpe and Billy Ray Valentine, respectively, as pawns in the wager of the Dukes, played by famous yesteryear actors Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche, two wealthy old commodities traders who are cheap, greedy and self-centered bigots. Winthorpe runs the Dukes’ business, but when he has a run-in with Valentine, the old men see an opportunity and strip Winthorpe of everything from his job to his fiancée and they give it all to Valentine.

Although the men making the bet are pretty terrible people judging mostly by their feelings about “N-words,” the experiment is a timeless one: Is a man’s moral fiber in his genetics, or is it merely a product of environmental circumstance that can be changed like a set of clothes? In the case of this film, can you take the man out of the ghetto and take the ghetto out of the man? Can a man of utmost principle be turned into a depraved lunatic? In the early 1980s, the new era of Civil Rights was barely 15 years old. Racial prejudice, economic prejudice — these things were just beginning to improve, and even today they need work.

No other film can boast two SNL stars and a social conscience, which makes “Trading Places” so special. Akyroyd is at his best as Winthorpe and Murphy gives one of his least eccentric (yet still humorous) performances. For opposite ends of the spectrum, they fit well together in this film. I’ve laughed harder at numerous more ’80s comedies than this one, but the smarts that back up “Trading Spaces” keep it in the upper-echelon.

But a story with the potential for a social statement needs a director who sees that ideas as being of utmost importance. Esteemed ’80s comedy directory John Landis has this covered from the very beginning with shots of wealth, poverty and the city of Philadelphia where the film takes place all intermingled. The film is very subtly about these greater social issues, but it’s definitely about them.

3.5/5 Stars

Trading Places (1983)
Directed by: John Landis
Written by: Timothy Harris, Herschel Weingrod
Starring: Eddie Murphy, Dan Akyroyd


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