No. 4: Trading Places

Note: Back to the Movies is a special feature on the FilmNerds blog in which Matt Scalici will be watching the Top 50 highest-grossing movies of 1983 in order from 50 to 1.

Comedy is tricky territory when taking on films from another era. While it certainly is possible for comedy to stand the test of time and remain equally funny to subsequent generations, I don’t think it’s necessarily a judgment on a film to say that it doesn’t affect audiences in the same way on the day it’s released as it does 30 years later.

There are lots of different ways to make people laugh and one of those ways involves being right on top of a highly relevant social or political issue. Timely comedy is important and can make people laugh by allowing them to make light of something bad going on in the world around them. Timely comedy does, however, have a tough time remaining fresh as the years go by. Looking at the highest-grossing comedy of 1983, John Landis’ Trading Places, it’s clear that in ’83, audiences responded to comedy about the current conditions of the world at the time. Going down the list of our Top 50 countdown, the comedies that stand up best today, by and large, don’t show up very near the top (with the exception of National Lampoon’s Vacation). The highly nostalgic A Christmas Story is quite possibly the most well-known film comedy on this countdown today in 2011 but barely made a blip at the box office in 1983. Others on the list that I think would be particularly well-received today include the Rodney Dangerfield vehicle Easy Money and Richard Pryor’s standup comedy film Here and Now, neither of which cracked the Top 25.

Trading Places had quite a lot going for it to help make it the most successful comedy release of the year. For one, the release was perfectly timed by Paramount, opening opposite Superman III and at a time when the rest of the nation’s screens were still being taken up by the behemoth that was Return of the Jedi. The only other comedy released in remote proximity of Trading Places was Steve Martin’s offbeat entry The Man with Two Brains, which despite scoring big with critics didn’t finish in the Top 50 in 1983.

That’s not to say Trading Places succeeded just because it was the only game in town. Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy were easily two of the hottest young names in comedy in 1983. After leaving Saturday Night Live in 1979, Akroyd quickly established himself as a rising film comedy star with The Blue Brothers film in 1980. Murphy meanwhile was still at the height of his popularity on SNL though he too had begun the transition to full-on movie star after the huge success of 48 Hours in 1982.

 

While the screenplay for Trading Places was initially envisioned as a project for Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor, the unavailability of Pryor led to Murphy landing the role of Billy Ray Valentine and out of a desire to avoid looking like he was trying to become “The Next Richard Pryor”, Murphy requested that producers re-cast the part of Louis Winthorpe, the over-privileged white commodities broker. Akroyd has always been notable for his plasticity as a comedy actor, which I’m sure is a big reason he was chosen as one of the founding members of Lorne Michaels’ sketch comedy troupe, and here he showed audiences that the man who played the epitome of cool, calm and collected in The Blues Brothers could just as easily pull off uptight and neurotic.

Murphy was a known quantity by 1983 but still hadn’t quite gotten the message out to mainstream American audiences that he was a man of many faces and voices. Billy Ray as a character is rather similar to the confident, quick-witted Reggie from 48 Hours but here Murphy gets a few opportunities to show off his ability to inhabit multiple roles within the same movie, something he would become known for and indeed something that became expected of him as his career went on. In the scene below, we see Murphy begin to play with the concept of inhabiting alter egos in his film roles and giving the audience not just one but multiple performances to chew on.

The premise of the film is two-fold: the first half of the film is a rather interesting social parable involving two wealthy commodities traders (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who are having the classic argument about Nature vs. Nurture. To settle the argument, the two decide to swap the life roles of two men, one being their well-bred and wealthy protogé Winthorpe (Akroyd) and the other a street urchin and con-man named Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy). The argument for Nurture seems to win out as Winthorpe falls to pieces without all the advantages of wealth while Billy Ray becomes an overnight success at the commodities firm.

It’s at that point that the film switches gears and becomes a film not about that philosophical argument anymore but essentially about the two heroes getting revenge on the rich old villains who used them as guinea pigs. This half of the film as a premise feels a lot less thoughtful and a lot more geared around rather unoriginal and tired jokes involving bad things happening to the bad guys including, in the case of the right hand man of the two Duke brothers, being violated by a gorilla. Har har.

The movie certainly has its moments, most of them coming from simple performance touches by Murphy and Akroyd. At the absolute low point of Winthorpe’s downfall, Akroyd sneaks his way into the company Christmas party dressed as Santa Claus to plant drugs in Billy Ray’s desk but before he does that he decides to stop by the buffet to grab some much-needed free food. The ensuing scene of Winthorpe drunkenly stuffing smoked salmon through his beard is hilariously pathetic.

(Apologies for the low quality clip – it’s the best I could find)

The film concludes with a rather confusing scene involving Winthorpe and Billy Ray somehow tricking the Duke brothers into losing millions of dollars in the frozen concentrated orange juice market. It’s still unclear to me as to what is actually happening (even Murphy has admitted in interviews that he didn’t understand what he was supposed to be doing in the scene) but I guess it’s sufficient to know that the Duke’s lost money in the end and the heroes got their revenge.

The film was overwhelmingly praised by critics in 1983, including a glowing review from Roger Ebert as well as high praise from Janet Maslin of The New York Times who called Trading Places the film that Preston Sturges might have made “if he’d had a little less inspiration and a lot more money.” That’s extremely high praise for John Landis as a director but also for writers Timohy Harris and Herschel Weingrod who went on to co-write such mega-successful comedies as Brewster’s Millions, and Kindergarten Cop in the years that followed.

It’s clear that Trading Places was an undisputed comedy hit in its day and that it remains so in the minds of many who saw it then. Watching it now, I find it to be light on laughs in comparison to what most audiences today expect of their film comedies. That’s not to say it’s not a smart film or a film with no laughs – just to say that if you showed this film in 2011 to an audience full of people who had never seen it before, I don’t believe the laughs would be very frequent, at least not as frequent as you’d hear in a typical contemporary comedy hit. That probably says a lot more about the way comedies are made today than it does about the quality of Trading Places as a film but it’s still worth noting. As I mentioned at the start of this review, I believe comedy is a very temporal and fast-moving animal and it’s rare to ever find a comedy that remains funny to audiences more than a few decades separated from it. Trading Places is a good movie but I’m not totally sure the laughs hit as hard today as they did in 1983.

 

DOWNLOAD: Back to the Movies Podcast – Trading Places (with guest Jason Roche)

 

Next Up: Jennifer Beals and Cynthia Rhodes star in the iconic dance movie Flashdance.