John Landis’ Trading Places is remarkably unafraid to take a cold hard look at racism, privilege, and inequality. It still retains the power to incite gasps and raise eyebrows, decades after release.
With two major caveats, Trading Places is one of my personal favorite comedies.
- Caveat one: for a movie with guts enough to deal so directly with such heated issues, it is oblivious to its own sexism. The only real female character is a sorely underwritten hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold stereotype (poor Jamie Lee Curtis).
- Caveat two: Dan Aykroyd’s blackface bit is excruciatingly cringeworthy, and nearly upends the film’s entire context of interrogating racism. For shame, everyone involved.
With these reservations out of the way: wow! Trading Places is as scathingly relevant now as in 1983. Rapacious investor siblings Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) disagree over whether their elevated social status is due to nature or nurture. They stage a Mark Twain-esque scenario, pitting their Prince (golden boy Aykroyd) against a Pauper (small-time con artist Eddie Murphy). Needless to say, their little social experiment is just as rooted in race as it is in class. The Duke’ sole concession to equality is that they view both pawns with contempt.
The Duke brothers represent the worst of American capitalism: the breed of parasitic short-term opportunists leeching off the economy that Tom Wolfe would satirize as self-proclaimed “masters of the universe” in his decade-defining novel The Bonfire of the Vanities. Terrifyingly, Landis could count on contemporary audiences automatically intuiting them as villains, but the same isn’t true today. In 2016 and 2018, enough Americans voted for a new batch of overtly racist predatory capitalists to grant them the power of the White House and Senate.
Trading Places is indebted to the films of Preston Sturges, but it also brings to mind Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. It has its own problematic aspects that haven’t aged well (such as dim-witted female characters with the sole aim of finding wealthy husbands), but is surprisingly progressive with its ambivalent attitudes on gender and sexuality.
More obviously, Trading Places shares with Some Like it Hot a propensity to break the fourth wall. Eddie Murphy’s classic spit-take to the “bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich” line is, for my money, one of the funniest moments in movie history: