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Review: Trading Places (1983)

Trading Places (1983)

Directed by: John Landis

Premise: Two wealthy businessmen conspire to cause a Wall Street broker (Dan Aykroyd) and a street thief (Eddie Murphy) to switch social roles.

What Works: Trading Places is an update of the Pygmalion story and it is a funny and smart social satire. Of the performances in the film, Eddie Murphy is given the most to work with and allowed the greatest range for his character, and Murphy’s performance in Trading Places is among his best work. Murphy’s character starts as a street hustler and in the early part of the film Murphy relies on his louder style of comedy. But as the film goes on Murphy tones it down and when he does that the actor manages to be comical but also inject some substance into his character, as his new and old identity conflict. Trading Places is a comedy of manners, satirizing social classes. This distinguishes Trading Places from other comedies because it is actually about something. Comedies tend to be a very disposable form of entertainment because much of the time they are about silliness and little else. There is nothing wrong with being silly; films like Dumb and Dumber and Caddyshack are very good comedies that just make the viewer laugh and they do that very well. But often times, the comedies that endure, like Dr. Strangelove or Blazing Saddles, do so because they use comedy to get at something deeper. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street is usually hailed as the seminal film about the culture of corporate greed in 1980s, but Trading Places was released four years earlier and nailed the subject nearly as well. The film is able to address the nature versus nurture argument, satirize the social class structure, and make some keen observations about the control of wealth. This may sound like academic exaggeration and truthfully the film is not as learned or as well made as Oliver Stone’s drama but Trading Places does manage to say something intelligent about its topic.   

What Doesn’t: Trading Places does have significant flaws. Comedy does not age well and almost three decades after its release a lot of the laughs in Trading Places aren’t as funny as they might have been in 1983. There are a few stupid bits in it such as a joke involving a gorilla, played obviously by a man in suit. The film also invokes racial stereotypes and homophobic slurs. For the most part these things are done consciously, either poking fun at stereotypes or using slurs in ways that are consistent with character traits. But there are also a few moments where that justification is inadequate. Those moments are few but they are present in the film. Because of its age and style, older viewers, especially those nostalgic for Eddie Murphy at his comic peak, may get more out of Trading Places than younger audiences.

DVD extras: Featurettes, deleted scenes, and trivia.

Bottom Line: Trading Places is a good comedy. Although it has dated and is a little rough around the edges, the film’s coarser moments give it a candor and an honesty that gives some edge to its social satire.

Episode: #364 (November 13, 2011)