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It’s an Eddie Murphy Christmas in ‘Trading Places’

Trading Places is a 1983 comedy about a snobbish investor and a wily street con artist who find their positions reversed as part of a bet by two callous millionaires.

Eddie Murphy was a comedic phenomenon while he was one Saturday Night Live but absolutely changed the genre in the movies when he started his tour de force rampage in cinemas through the 1980s. His first big screen appearance was the buddy cop comedy thriller 48 hrs., a career defining film that pretty boldly made it clear there was a new sheriff in town. The following year, he paired up with fellow SNL alum Dan Aykroyd for a bit of mayhem with director John Landis, and it was an even bigger hit, catapulting the young star to international fame. The two are very good together (along with Jamie Lee Curtis) though this is clearly Murphy’s movie, and he carries it from frame one, making this an alternative Christmas movie well worth unwrapping.

Trading Places, 1983 © Paramount Pictures

The story follows wealthy commodities brokers Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who debate nature versus nurture and make a bet with each other on a personal social experiment, switching the lives of two entirely different people of social background. Apparently, rich people can do that. One is Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd), a well-educated member of high society and an employee of their firm and the other is Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), a homeless street hustler. They frame Winthrope and have him tossed in jail, stripping him of his job, home, and reputation, while transplanting Valentine into Withrope’s position, moving him into his house and giving him his career. Neither, of course, knows about the other.

One of the great things about the evolution of Murphy in this movie is its departure from 48 hrs. a film that put being black right at the center of the film and even became the movie’s signature moment. Murphy wielded it like a razor sharp weapon with sensational effect, never hammering it too hard but always keeping it edgy. With Trading Places, race wasn’t an issue, and the film never obliquely makes it one, keeping it more about the personalities, even as obvious social commentary is inherent in the roles in which both he and Aykroyd are cast and flipped. It pokes at prejudices while overtly steering clear of thumping us over the head. In this way, Valentine is taken at face value rather than for his race and it is his charms and intelligence that earn his eventual place in the twisted game the Duke’s play. This frees Murphy to really riff on the characters and themes untethered by just about anything. So when he breaks the fourth wall with a simple but very amusing glance at us when the Dukes patronize his intelligence while explaining the job, we laugh because he’s inviting all of us to join the joke. Great stuff.

Trading Places, 1983 © Paramount Pictures

I also really like a terrific moment in a jail cell where Murphy puts on a great display of his comedic timing in a kind of homage to groundbreaker Richard Pryor and his longtime film partner Gene Wilder from a movie called Stir Crazy. In that film the two, after being framed for a crime they didn’t commit, enter a holding cell filled with lawbreakers and try to look ‘bad’, ending with a hysterical face-to-face with a couple of big cellmates. In this moment, Murphy echoes this, complete with faux Karate (à la Wilder) and a pair of hulking inmates. Murphy, who spent most of 48 hrs. bantering side-by-side with Nick Nolte, is left to his own devices throughout the movie, giving him plenty of breathing space, even as the film partners him with Aykroyd, who for a majority of the film is separated from Murphy. The takeaway here is that Murphy shows he’s ready for a solo project, and of course, gets it the following year with Beverly Hills Cop.

Trading Places
Trading Places, 1983 © Paramount Pictures

As a Christmas movie, Trading Places is sort of an alternative to the more traditional fare, a film less about the holiday than the spirit of doing the right thing, the movie focusing on insider trading, as was a popular theme in that decade. Still, there’s something iconoclastic about seeing Aykroyd dressed up as a mangy, soiled Santa, toting meat and a pistol in his pockets running roughshod through a good portion of the movie. The story is hardly about the holiday season, but somehow keeps it present enough to make sure it’s never left out of sight, which makes its early summer release all the more puzzling. What’s more, Curtis is great fun, sassy and smart (with some 80s obligatory nudity), playing the prototypical hooker with a heart, she crucial to the finale as the three team up to exact some revenge as the story moves to New Years.

Trading Places is a classic comedy, a terrific showcase for Murphy, Aykroyd and Curtis, while further giving exposure to younger audiences to the legendary Bellamy and Ameche, with the latter kickstarting a strong comeback of sorts in the decade. A non-traditional Christmas tradition, this is a must-see holiday movie.

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