Trading Places Movie Review

Trading Places Movie Review
Director: John Landis
Written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod
Release Date: 8 June 1983
Running Time: 116 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Editor’s Rating: 4 out of 4 contracts of frozen concentrated orange juice

The economy was in a good spot in the 1980s. Miami Vice was a thing, people like Michael Milken and Carl Icahn were generating a character study for Gordon Gekko by swindling the American economy, and everybody was looking out for themselves, which meant profits abounded and people were buying. The bubble hadn’t burst just yet. And in Philadelphia, the Duke & Duke Commodities brokerage was alive and well, making fortunes daily by trading stock futures. Louis Winthorpe III (played by Dan Aykroyd) is the company’s harvard-educated, silver-spoon-suckled, pasty white managing director. Everything is going great for him. He’s got a posh townhouse, a butler/chauffeur, and an absolutely intolerable fiance who’s just perfect for him.

Everything begins to spin out of control for him when he bumps into Billy Ray Valentine, a street hustler who just happens to be outside of the Duke & Duke offices as Winthorpe is leaving. Louis, sharing the upper-class notion that every single black person is genetically engineered to rob white people, freaks out and accuses Billy Ray of trying to rob him. Randolph and Mortimer Duke (played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche respectively), Louis’s bosses and the obvious owners of Duke & Duke, observe this whole fiasco and get into a debate as to whether or not Billy Ray could do just as well running their company as Winthorpe could, if Billy Ray had the same conveniences and means as Louis. A bet is made, plans are set in motion, and the lives of Louis Winthorpe III and Billy Ray Valentine will never be the same.

The profession that drives the narrative in the movie is something that deserves its own little spotlight. Commodities brokering is basically, according to the movie, legal bookmaking with goods most of us use every day - soybeans, orange juice, silver, gold, coffee, tea, the list goes on. Commodities brokers have clients who use these things to run their businesses. They buy and sell on behalf of those clients, and whether or not their actions make the client money, they still make a profit based on commission. And it’s not an immediate "I buy orange juice, I take it home with me kind of thing-" this particular market is speculative, meaning that “we think that on this date, that orange juice will be this price at this time, and I promise to buy it at that price at that time.” It’s a rather mind-boggling way to do business, and I honestly still don’t understand it. Making money off of imaginary numbers and imaginary money. Whoa.

Besides burying a scathing social commentary underneath the humor of Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, this film has great supporting cast, right down to the bit characters. Bo Diddley makes a quick and dirty cameo as a pawn shop owner, Frank Oz sort-of reprises his role as a police officer inventory clerk from another John Landis movie, 1980’s The Blues Brothers. A relatively unknown and doofy Al Franken has a spot as a baggage handler, while James Belushi plays an overly-amorous gorilla. Even the cell mates Billy Ray spends about fifteen seconds with are quotable.


The Dukes are also played to perfection by Bellamy and Ameche. Everything they do, from giving one of their butlers five dollars between them for his Christmas bonus to having a Mercedes limo with two personal computers, cell phones, and a personal minibar in 1983, scream unapologetic, harsh, out-of-touch old money.

Fun factoid: at the end of the film, Don Ameche, for the first time on film, drops the F bomb. He was adamantly against saying it, and with prying from Landis, conceded to say it once, and only once. Even so, in the final version of the film, Ameche's audio doesn’t match his mouth, so he’s not actually pictured saying the word.

But really, the rest of this movie is wonderfully cast and acted. Aykroyd is a perfect straight man with a hint of lunacy (see his Santa outfit scene), Murphy is Murphy, pure and uncut. He could have walked out of Raw and into this movie. Unlike modern-day Eddie Murphy, it’s a joy to behold. Jamie Lee Curtis is her normal charming self, and Denholm Elliott makes the perfect butler. Everyone is playing to their strengths in this film, and Landis brings out the best in their performances.

Please keep in mind, this movie carries an R rating for a good reason - this isn’t like some other movies I’ve reviewed and said that if you talk to your kids about it, it should be fine. It’s loaded with language and nudity, but it is all in context. A very adult context. So, enjoy this film. Not only does it know what it’s talking about, but it’s funnier than Dan Aykroyd’s imitation of a Jamaican.

**I watched this movie via a streaming service I pay for. I was not compensated for this review.**

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