Christmas Movies: Trading Places (1983) Review

3.5/5* | Shivs Show | Siobhan Divers

Dir: John Landis

116 mins

Starring: Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliot, Jamie Lee Curtis.

A clever, well-acted ensemble comedy, Trading Places is a must-see festive classic which also insightfully highlights socio-economic issues and the problematic class structure which exists in America.

A visually and thematically impressive film, Trading Places is essentially a modern take on Mark Twain’s 19th century novel, The Prince and the Pauper.

Set at Christmas time in 1980s America, Trading Places tells the story of an upper-class commodities broker, Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) and a homeless con artist, Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) whose paths cross by accident.

Unbeknownst to them, Louis’ bosses and owners of the Commodities Brokerage, Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche) make an elaborate bet. They hold opposing views on the nature versus nurture theories so they wager whether they can simultaneously give Billy Ray Valentine a life of luxury while ruining Louis Winthorpe III’s life as part of their social experiment.

With exploring and exposing racism as a key theme within the film, it has been questioned why there’s a scene where Dan Aykroyd’s character is ‘blacked up’ – that’s to say is covered head to toe in black makeup – an act which is frowned upon and regarded as racist. While this is for comical reasoning and it’s practical in the film to some degree (he uses it as a disguise in the film), it is still cringeworthy and extremely awkward.

It can be overlooked, I guess though, since it is a comedy and is used as a comical device (it doesn’t completely ruin the film… let’s put it that way).

Another issue, which was probably not as prominent in the 80s either, is what is known as the smurfette principle – in a film which mostly consists of male characters, there is then one female character.

Coined by Katha Pollitt in The New York Times, the smurfette priniciple also refers to the fact that the sole women character essentially represents “femininity” and “everything female.”

Jamie Lee Curtis’ character Ophelia is a memorable one but she ultimately exists as the onscreen eye-candy as a prostitute and female side-kick to the male leads which is a shame as her character is interesting and can be overlooked as a supporting character in the film.

She did however win Best Actress in a Supporting Role at the 37th British Film Academy Awards for her performance in Trading Places so she is at least remembered.

An iconic yet slightly flawed film, Trading Places is still a classic.

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