Trading Places (1983) is not a film often mentioned on many people’s list of favourite Christmas films. Though it may not have as many obvious festive touch-points as revered classics such as It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) or Miracle on 34th Street (1947), this role-reversal comedy is no less timeless.
The film is set during the early 1980s, when Wall Street was booming and the divide between rich and poor was widening. The owners of a successful commodities brokerage, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke decide to play a game. What will happen if they switch the lives of two people from polar opposite backgrounds?
They find their two guinea pigs after observing a chance interaction between their managing director, the insufferable Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), and street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphie).
Randolph and Mortimer prove very adept at transforming the lives of both men. Firstly, through some devious hijinks, Louis is reduced to the life of a petty criminal after being framed for theft and drug dealing and is promptly cast out of the world of privilege to which he had become accustomed. Fortunately for him, one of the inadvertent accomplices in his downfall, a prostitute named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), agrees to help him in exchange for monetary reward once he regains his old life.
Whilst this is going on, the meddlesome Brothers Duke have set Valentine up in Winthorpe’s old office and allowed him use of his predecessor’s former home. Valentine takes to his new surroundings like a duck to water; utilising his nous and instincts to become a successful broker.
Everything seems to be going swimmingly for Valentine until he overhears Randolph and Mortimer discussing their experiment and their plans to return Valentine to the streets now they’ve settled their wager. Crucially, they agree to leave Winthorpe in the gutter. Realising that both he and Winthorpe have been mere pawns in a cheap game played by two old men, Valentine seeks out his newfound ally and the two of them hatch a plan to get even.
Though Trading Places is most often thought of as a comedy, it is not difficult to see the underlying themes at work. At its heart, the film is about prejudice, the disparity of opportunities between white and black, and the tensions between old and new money.
The two Duke Brothers, Randolph and Mortimer, represent the power of the old, wealthy elite, able to play games with people’s lives and money without being held to account – sound familiar? At the other end of the scale, Valentine faces daily prejudice and is denied access to the same opportunities, but has developed an enterprising and streetwise ability to survive.
When subjected to the same conditions, Winthorpe does not respond well. In one of the most blackly comic moments in the film, Winthorpe sneaks into the Dukes’ Christmas Party dressed as Santa Claus. In between swigs of whisky, Winthorpe smuggles a plate of smoked salmon into his beard, which he later consumes on a bus, much to the disgust of his fellow passengers. At the end of the night, Winthorpe stands on the sidewalk in the rain and makes a failed attempt to commit suicide.
Following a scene like this, it’s not hard to understand why some people have read Trading Places as a two-hour exploration of how different the experience of white people can be when subjected to the same prejudices faced by black people. Though ultimately Winthorpe is able to exact revenge on his oppressors, this does not detract from the film’s argument that there should be a level playing-field for everyone in society to achieve success.
So whilst Trading Places contains plenty of laughs and enjoyable set-pieces, it also carries plenty of re-watch value. Its message of social justice, carried forth by two of cinema’s greatest comic performers, allows it to tread that precarious line between comedy and seriousness. Given American comedy’s current obsession with ‘gross-out’ slapstick, it’s hard to imagine a film such as Trading Places appearing on our screens anytime soon. What a terrible pity that prospect is.