Two millionaires create a “social experiment” where they switch the lives of a black street con man and a white upper class snob.
John Landis, 1983
In his New York mansion, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) orders around his butler Coleman (Denholm Elliott) and makes investment recommendations to the Duke brothers, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche). Meanwhile, on the streets, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) poses as a blind Vietnam vet amputee in order to beg for money. When Valentine bumps into Winthorpe on the street, Winthorpe accuses Valentine of trying to steal from him, getting Valentine sent to the holding cell at the police station. The Duke brothers decide to make a bet. Randolph, believing in nurture over nature, believes that he can make Valentine into an upstanding broker and Winthorpe into a common criminal. Mortimer believes that you can’t change people’s basic nature, and Winthorpe is a naturally good man while Valentine is a common crook. Using their millionaires, they get Winthorpe framed for a scandal and arrested while giving his home (and butler) to Valentine after bailing him out. At the police station, Winthorpe meets enterprising prostitute Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), who helps him out the best she can.
This modern(er) update of The Prince and the Pauper manages to be very funny and socially aware – and its message is as pertinent today as it was in 1983. It boasts a caerrer-best performance from Dan Aykroyd, who plays the snobby Winthorpe’s downfall to perfection. Vintage Eddie Murphy is funny and sharp – in a moment when the Dukes are explaining the concept of commodities to Valentine as though he’s a child, Murphy breaks the fourth wall to shoot the audience a disbelieving look. Indiana Jones’ Denholm Elliott is also brilliant as the put-upon butler who serves them both; you could make a complete collection of reaction gifs from the faces he makes in this movie. Of the few women (most of whom get topless – this is the 80s, after all), only Jamie Lee Curtis gets any development. She’s a scene stealer, infusing Ophelia with guile and charm, but “hooker with a heart of gold” is a done-to-death trope nonetheless. It would be nice if the filmmakers afforded women the same humanity they give black men (and skipped the nasty gay jokes).
Racism and classism are woven into the fibre of this film. The opening credits roll over a montage of New York City scenes, with poorer vistas contrasted against the upper echelon, set to classical music. Above the exclusive club where the Dukes and their rich brethren make their deals there is a sign that reads “LIBERTY AND JUSTICE FOR ALL: Members only”. Winthorpe and Valentine are carefully balanced characters; they could easily become unlikeable, but the film keeps them relatable while highlighting the difference in how they handle what’s thrown their way. Director John Landis is at the top of his game, highlighting the barbs of the script and interspersing the film with visual gags. The film builds nicely to its gorilla-filled bonanza of a climax, although the “retribution” for the Dukes’ mook Paul Gleason (the principal from The Breakfast Club!) is unpleasant. I can see why this film is considered a classic; it’s an iron fist in a velvet glove of a film, and it’s cleverly made.
Trading Places on IMDb