The Oscar Project
It’s already almost the middle of May and today I’m providing my thoughts on the film Trading Places to fulfill my pick for the Rich vs. Poor category. If you still need help picking a film for this week, please check out my post from earlier this week.
As I noted the other day, this is one of those films I’ve seen the back half of at least a dozen times on television. It’s the type that seems to be on TBS or TNT late at night every few months, obviously edited for TV given the amount of language and nudity in the film. That said, as many times as I’ve seen bits and pieces and as well as I know some of the famous scenes, I didn’t remember most of the first half of the film so I still consider it a new watch for me.
If you don’t know the story, Trading Places focuses on the billionaire Duke brothers Mortimer (Don Ameche) and Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) as they conduct a social experiment at the expense of their business manager Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and local vagabond Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). After an incident where Winthorpe accuses Valentine of trying to steal the company payroll, the Randolph Duke bets Mortimer that they can turn Valentine straight and turn Winthorpe into a criminal by swapping their positions in life.
Winthorpe’s descent on the other hand is not so smooth. He is falsely accused of theft at his upscale club, just as he falsely accused Valentine just days prior. As a result, he is kicked out of the club and sent to jail, only to have the police find drugs on his person leading to additional charges. As a result, his fiancé breaks up with him and he ends up meeting Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a kind-hearted prostitute getting out of jail at the same time as him. She takes pity on him and offers to let him stay at her apartment while he tries to get his life back on track.
The final act of the film kicks off when Valentine overhears the Dukes discussing their bet in the bathroom of the Christmas party. Mortimer pays of Randolph (with their standard bet of $1) and they discuss how to revert things back to their original state, with Winthorpe running the company and Valentine back in the ghetto. The pair agree they don’t want Winthorpe back because of just how far he has fallen, but also agree that they don’t want a black man like Valentine running their company. They show their racism here by using the n-word which comes as a bit of a shock to Valentine because of how jovial they had been with him throughout the rest of the film. Valentine then finds Winthorpe back at Opheila’s apartment and tells him about the Dukes’ bet. Together with Opheilia and Winthorpe/Valentine’s butler Coleman (Denholm Elliott), they hatch a plan to get back at the Duke brothers by feeding them fake information about the expectations for the commodities markets in the new year. They plan to let the Dukes drive up the price of frozen concentrated orange juice futures in early trading before jumping in themselves to drive the price back down through short sales, making a boat load of money for themselves, and leaving the Dukes in the lurch.
Now, about the film itself, I was a bit surprised how well it holds up for the most part. Are there some problems with it? Of course. But the whole conceit of the movie is to show what absolutely garbage the Duke brothers are. The opening of the film is a fantastic look at the varying levels of prosperity in the city of Philadelphia where the film takes place. We see working class folks from butchers and fish sellers prepping their wares for the day to professionals commuting on the freeways and subways to office buildings. This eventually leads to a sequence of Coleman prepping Winthorpe’s breakfast on a silver platter intercut with images of homeless people, hammering home the disparity between the wealthy and the poor.
However, we soon learn that there is an entirely different level of wealth, and that comes in the form of the Dukes who exit their lavish country mansion, complete with multiple maids and servants (compared with Winthorpe’s single butler). The Dukes don’t even acknowledge their staff, a direct comparison to Winthorpe in the previous scene, who accepts the attention of Coleman and others employed by the Duke company, but also greets everyone in the office lobby who says “good morning” to him. Even in these first scenes, the film is establishing that Winthorpe might be pretentious and have an overly large opinion of himself, but at his core, he’s still a good person. On the flip side, The Duke brothers are clearly portrayed as the worst side of wealth who can’t even spare a kind word to anyone they deem below their own lofty status (which is pretty much everyone).
I lay this out to point out that just when we think the Dukes can’t get any lower, we see an even darker side of them near the end of the film. But let’s back up a bit. First, we see them ignore their staff in the opening. Then, they make their bet, ruining the life of their best employee (and his fiancé) over a dollar wager, and raising Valentine to prosperity. In the process, Valentine makes them more money than they would have alone in the famous pork belly scene. But the kicker comes when Valentine learns of their bet at the Christmas party. Mortimer Duke pays off his brother and they discuss swapping Valentine and Winthorpe back to their original positions. However, Winthorpe is now damaged goods. He’s become a criminal and can no longer be seen as the head of their prestigious company. Valentine on the other hand is also unworthy to lead the company in their eyes for the sole reason that he is Black. They are prepared to toss aside both men and move on to someone else with no thought given to how the entire experience will affect them long term.
Of course, this being the movies, the good guys do win in the end and the wealthy villains get their comeuppance. I mentioned some problems with the film and most of it stems from the racism inherent in the images. In the opening montage I mentioned above, the majority of the people in the scenes of wealth are white while many of those in the scenes depicting poverty are Black. Unfortunately, this probably isn’t a surprise given the film was made in the early 1980s. If it was remade today, I doubt we would see the same racial divides in the background shots establishing the mise-en-scene, or even in the primary roles. In fact, I would be interested to see a re-make of this film with all the roles tossed in a blender and rearranged. It would be a curious exercise in how far we have come since the original 40 years ago, but also how far we still have to go.
The last thing I have to mention because it made me laugh out loud is the famous fourth wall break from Eddie Murphy. It comes in the scene where the Dukes are explaining what commodities are to Valentine and after Randolph explains that pork bellies are “used to make bacon, which you might find in a bacon and lettuce and tomato sandwich” Valentine looks directly at the camera with a look that can only say “can you believe these guys?” It so quick that you might miss it, but sums up what both Valentine and the audience are feeling about the Dukes at that moment. It’s also a genius way to fully get the audience on Valentine’s side for the rest of the movie and almost feels like it’s Murphy’s way of saying to a knowing audience, “can you believe I even have to be in this movie?”
After watching this film from start to finish, I finally have a much better appreciation for it as a whole. The ability to understand the climactic scene with the help of the folks at NPR’s Planet Money makes the ending even more enjoyable. The film was perfectly cast from top to bottom and it feels a part of the city of Philadelphia in a similar way to Rocky several years before. (We even get an image of a Rocky statue in the opening montage) If you’ve never seen Trading Places, or if it’s been a while since you’ve seen the whole thing, I urge you to check it out and reconnect with this classic film.
I'm just a film buff who wants to watch great movies. Where else to find the best, than the list of those nominated by the Academy each year?