Very few films will ever reach the level of faultlessness that Trading Places did in 1983. As a film, and as a comedy, director John Landis’s masterpiece excelled on all levels. It was brilliantly pieced together, proving to be just as cinematically important as it was hilarious. The performances gave the film the substance it needed to lift itself out of forgetfulness. The plot alone – entertaining as it is – has been said before. The people that colour Timothy Harris’ script turn it into the ultimate example of filmmaking masterclass.
At the heart of Trading Places, Dan Aykroyd has never been more entertaining. His acting is tragically comic. He plays the snobbish preppy and the tortured soul with equal conviction, turning a well-written character into a comedic triumph. Eddie Murphy’s career as a whole is almost forgivable when watching Billy Ray give elitism a kick in the face. Then you have the Duke brothers aka Duke & Duke, played by Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche – possibly the most entertaining aspect of the whole film. These men embody the cruelty of uber-capitalism, the hideousness of incalculable wealth and the self-importance that so dangerously plays with individual lives. At the same time, their dedication to such a role is laugh-out-loud wonderful.
Harris was definitely on form as he spilled this onto the page. The whole screenplay is filled with hysteria; lines like Coleman’s classic, “Religion is a good thing, I say, taken in moderation”, and Louis Winthorpe’s, “I had the most absurd nightmare. I was poor and no one liked me. I lost my job, I lost my house, Penelope hated me and it was all because of this terrible, awful Negro”. Of course, the context is what counts, and everything in Trading Places is timed to absolute perfection. On top of this, there is no weak link. To have John Landis and his acting force bring the script alive like this must have been a pleasure for Harris. As well as the leads, the supporting roles are absolutely fantastic. Jamie Lee Curtis is both incredibly funny and strangely alluring – and then, of course, there is Denholm Elliot as Coleman.
There is a moral message here too. One that has been elaborated on before by many, including an inspired Mark Twain. And while the plotline is not astoundingly original, it remains astoundingly entertaining to watch – and there is so much life, and so much humour found in Trading Places, that it will only ever be known as a comedy that far surpassed expectations, no matter how great they may have been. When the question, “environment or heredity?” is called into play, the viewer will occasionally forget to notice a funny line, or a situation that is played with brilliantly. He will find himself absorbed in an interesting experiment that sets out to uncover an age-old dispute. But then it’ll be there to watch again and again and again.