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trading places

TRADING PLACES (1983 - R)

Commodity brokers Duke & Duke wager a bet that drastically affects two men’s lives.  In order to help get homeless con artist Billy Ray back on his feet the Dukes offer him a home, a full time job, a car, and all the toppings of a comfortable upper class lifestyle.  In exchange, Billy Ray’s adversary, the pretentious upper class snob Louis Winthorpe is uprooted and transplanted into the ghetto: forced to survive off of instincts and the help of a sassy prostitute.  But when both men discover the truth to the Duke’s conniving scheme they decide to team up and undermine the frivolous commodity brokers once and for all.

The cast includes: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Don Ameche, Ralph Bellamy, Jamie Lee Curtis, and Denholm Elliot.

Written by: Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod.

Directed by: John Landis.

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Genre: Comedy

Tagline: The 1980’s version of Rat Race.

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Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) is rich: filthy rich.  He’s the type of rich that means breakfast in bed in the mornings, butlers, tailored suits, and personal shaves.  Living in downtown Philadelphia where the disparity between rich and poor is a stark visual contrast, he is a man to be envied and pondered.  How did get that rich?  As it seems Louis Winthorpe III is an important investor who manages big time millionaires Duke and Duke’s (as in Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) Duke) investing company: and who is coincidentally dating the Duke’s niece, Penelope.  Still, not only is Louis rich, he’s snobbish, uptight, and prudish.

Pan to his antithesis: Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) a poor, low-life con artist who is trying to hustle people for small change on the streets.  When the two men’s paths cross one day, inside the Duke and Duke financial office, mayhem ensues.  After a brief interlude with the authorities Randolph wages his brother Mortimer that, given the right circumstances, he can help Billy Ray successfully run their company as does their current prudish scaredy cat, Louis.  Of course that means displacing Louis into as equally low and destitute a situation as Billy Ray was one subject to.  So after a hefty wager the two Dukes set out to put their little con, also dubbed a “scientific experiment”, into action.

While Louis involves his last night as a privileged, haughty man with his equally well-to-do and attractive fiancée Penelope (Kristin Holby), Louis’ butler Coleman (Denholm Elliott) receives message of Duke & Duke’s experimental objective.  The next day Billy Ray is bailed out of jail, compliments of the Dukes of course, and subject to a private interview insides the Dukes’ comfy limo.  So the proposition is initiated:  the Dukes would like to “help former delinquents get back on their feet”, specifically Billy Ray, by supplying him with a house, a car, and a job to call his own: salary starts at $80,000 a year. Of course the irony is that the house, the car, the butler, the job: they’re all formerly the property of none other than Louis Winthorpe III.

But what about Louis?  Where is he now that Billy has been privy to take over and repossess all that was formerly his own?  Pan to the Duke & Duke’s private business association: The Heritage Club, where Mr. Clarence Beeks of Winhurst Security informs fellow employees of Duke & Duke that there is a thief among exclusive society.  Staging an impromptu theft scenario, Mr. Beeks almost too easily strolls up to Louis’ (and only Louis’) desk and exposes the “tainted money” that he has allegedly “stolen”.  Also pinned on the poor fool is a cellophane bag with a hefty amount of PCP. 

While Billy Ray is enjoying the early novelty of freshly acquired money (and lots of it), Winthorpe is learning a hard reality during his painful overnight stay in the jail cell, which coincidentally results in several bruises and a harsh admonition from his snobby fiancée.  Just as soon as Penelope makes up with her convicted fiancée, in walks a staged hooker, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) who throws quite a disturbing scene that results in the severing of his tries with his would-be-wife, and the disgusting surprise that he is no longer privy to a home.  Likewise his credit cards have been frozen, and repossessed.  When the street savvy Ophelia witnesses the recently framed and shambled Louis groveling, she decides to try and help him out- of course an alleged 5-figure proposition ensues. 

Meanwhile Billy Ray attends his first day at work where Duke & Duke break down the basics of their commodities brokerage company.  Of course once Billy Ray likens his job to that of a bookie, he takes to his job rather well. In fact he is quite good at his job, even saving Duke & Duke quite a bit of money in the process.  Pan to a struggling Louis who is, after being framed, disgraced, etc., being further rejected from all the idle and pretentious rich whose loyalties side with the green rather than the person. 

So Valentine successfully hobnobs his way up the social ladder with fellow Duke & Duke associates while Louis begins to plot a way to expose the whole façade.  It’s the Christmas party at Duke & Duke and Billy is beginning to suspect foul play when he stumbles across a precarious check written to an unaccounted for Mr. Beeks- a check which Mortimer Duke hastily snatches up in hopes of hiding all evidence pertaining to their little plot.  But their cover is blown when they begin to openly discuss their little con (by the way, the wager was for the total sum of $1) without knowledge that Billy Ray is present in the room (albeit hiding in the bathroom stall).

As Duke & Duke discuss timing on when to execute the switch and once again transplant Billy Ray back to the ghetto, and thus Louis back into working society, Billy goes on the hunt for Louis in hopes of spreading his recent (bad) news.  A brief interlude at Ophelia’s house and suddenly Louis Winthorpe finds himself back at his own house, warm in his bed…and still blaming Billy Ray.  Given the opportunity to confess, Billy Ray informs Louis of their guinea pig status at the mercy of two mercenary Dukes.  The sudden turn of events has the two men sharing egg nog and watching TV together, at which point they espy Clarence Beeks involved in some potentially illegal matters.

Realizing that the Dukes have plans to corner the orange market, Louis and Billy pontificate a way to seek revenge which involves a comic scene in a train on New Year’s eve.  A spoof on the Pink Panther’s dual guerillas (classic), along with a Rastafarian Louis, a Cameroonian Billy Ray, and a Swedish Ophelia, and a pastoral Coleman ensues in hopes of beating Mr. Beeks and the Dukes to the covetous orange report.  Of course the movie wouldn’t be complete without Louis and Billy’s grand ending as a dynamic duo at the NYC trading center where Duke & Duke will finally realize that their little experiment is going to cost them much more than a dollar!

“Trading Places” is fun, flirty, facetious, and factual.  As one critic notes, “the film has more heart than most of its kind... It is intelligent without being preachy and funny without trying too hard.”  “Trading Places” is a biting satire that is fresh, witty, exuberant, and tacitly realistic.  In this film anything “green” goes.  Landis lends his audience a crystal clear, no-fuss lens through which to view the eccentricities and foibles of mercenary America and its negligence for compassion, humility, respect, and pride.  The film’s tone is, albeit undeniably humorous (who would expect else wise with comic duo Aykroyd and Murphy at the helm of the film?), a no-fuss, unbiased, vacillating perspective through which to view many nuances of 4 particular economic demographics: poor and black; poor and white; rich and black; and rich and white. Through his exploration of these particular demographics Landis is able to expose and comment, however satirically, on the debilitating effects of racism and greed for all parties involved. 

The rapid decaying of Aykroyd’s social status as Winthorpe III is a frightening hyperbole of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s bittersweet examination of the self destructing idle and mercenary upper class.  The social elite in this film are purely detestable, pretentious, and all things carnival.  Likewise, the same tragic elements are twists and examined from the perspective of the “poor black guy” who is to beat up, kicked around, taken advantage of, and used in light of some superior prospect.  This film is an in your face, that’s the way it is, survival of the “richest” comic satire that is as lamenting as it is comical in conceding the “cold hard truth” of the world, specifically, urban America.

The musical score is appropriately a mesh of 1980’s top 40’s and an animated score.  As far as cinematography goes, “Trading Spaces” doesn’t pack pretense into the visual: the film relies on the dark, the dingy, and the dank to stand alone and in contrast to the warm cherry woods and champagnes of the haughty socialite estates and business affairs.  Of course the film revolves around, however satirically, the color green! 

As far as acting goes, Jamie Lee Curtis is titillating as a very “free”, bare-all, win-all prostitute who, despite her equally mercenary motives and questionable lifestyle, turns out to be the most genuine female in the film.  Curtis has the right combination of pizzazz and “no funny stuff” elements, combined with a svelte physique that makes her a great cast for the role of Ophelia.  Equally entertaining is Denholm Elliot as the “humane” butler.  His cameo as a drunken Irish priest is up there with Aykroyd’s Rastafarian getup and Murphy’s Cameroonian cover up.  Murphy is hard hitting, honest, and a perfect cast as the street hard, albeit intelligent and capable Billy Ray.  Aykroyd does throw you off a bit as the tight collared Louis, however his tragic, albeit hilarious transformation into a raving drunken Santa Claus underscores his impressive comic genius that has made him a star on shows like SNL, etc.  Lastly (but not least) Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy are solid veterans in their roles as duping mercenary commodity brokers Mortimer and Randolph Duke respectively. 

“Trading Places” was nominated for the 1984 Oscar for Best Original Song Score (Elmer Bernstein).  The film was also the proud recipient of 2 other critical film association awards: the BAFTA’s award for Best Supporting Actor (Denholm Elliot) and Best Supporting Actress (Jamie Lee Curtis).  “Trading Places” also received another 3 critical film nominations: the BAFTA award for Best Screenplay (Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod), and the Golden Globe nominations for Best Picture and Best Actor (Eddie Murphy).

Main Characters:

Dan Aykroyd plays Louis Winthorpe III, the rich guinea pig.

Eddie Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, the poor guinea pig.

Don Ameche plays Mortimer Duke, “mad scientist” #1.

Ralph Bellamy plays Randolph Duke, “mad scientist” #2.

Jamie Lee Curtis plays Ophelia, the street savvy prostitute.

Denholm Elliot plays Coleman, the butler.

Memorable Quotes:

Randolph:  That man is a product of a poor environment.  There is absolutely nothing

wrong with him: I can prove it.

Mortimer: Of course there’s something wrong with him, he’s a negro.

Mortimer: You’re a free man, Valentine.

Billy: Hey, hey! Bubbles!  Hey man when I was growing up we had to fart in our tub.

Randolph:  You see Mortimer, Billy’s already made us a profit of $15,000.

Billy: You want me to break something else?

Randolph & Mortimer: NO!

Billy: And be quiet out there, my friends are asleep: they work too!

Ophelia:  That’s the deal and it’s not subject to negotiation…By the way, around here, food and rent aren’t the only thing that cost money: you sleep on the couch!

Louis:  Why is someone deliberately trying to ruin my life?

Ophelia:  Get off your knees, Louie.

Ophelia:  Give me your hands…Soft hands, and a manicure.  Never don a hard day’s work in your life huh?

Coleman:  Just be yourself, Sir.  Whatever happens, they can’t take that away from you.

Billy:  Sounds to me like you guys are a couple of bookies.

Billy:  Its Christmas time, everybody’s uptight. 

Louis:  You’ve been so kind to me.

Ophelia: I’m just protecting my investment.  That’s all.  Shut up and go to sleep.

Coleman:  I always say religion is a good thing, taken in moderation.