Problematic Movies of the 80s | Trading Places (1983)

Problematic Movies of the 80s | Trading Places (1983)

by Don Hall

Aside from the cursory update of Twain’s The Prince and The Pauper and the young Eddie Murphy being generally hysterical, I can authentically say I don’t remember much about this film. I vaguely remember seeing Jamie Lee Curtis’s tits which, for a seventeen year-old male was a revelation but I may be wrong about that. I know I saw her tits in something, right? Did I just dream that? We’ll see.

I have, however, heard some squawk about Murphy’s portrayal of a homeless conman (isn’t he pretending to be legless in the beginning?) as well as his homophobic jokes in RAW four years later. Combining that with the current Robber Baron/Mega-Corporation/Koch Bros dystopia we’re currently drowning in and the recent death of one of said Kochs, Trading Places seemed to be ripe for a revisit. I mean, it was directed by the guy who gave us Animal House, the Thriller video with the child predator, and both the Kentucky Fired Movie and Amazon Women on the Moon (both almost avatars of politically incorrect jokes) so let’s take a gander.

Trading Places
Directed by John Landis
Written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod

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The synopsis from Wikipedia sums up things nicely:

Duke brothers Randolph and Mortimer own a successful commodities brokerage firm Duke & Duke in Philadelphia. Holding opposing views on the issue of nature versus nurture, they make a wager and agree to conduct an experiment switching the lives of two unwitting people at opposite sides of the social hierarchy and observing the results.

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Winthorpe (Dan Akroyd) is publicly framed as a thief, drug dealer and philanderer by Clarence Beeks, a man on the Dukes’ payroll. Winthorpe is fired from Duke & Duke, his bank accounts are frozen, he is denied entry to his Duke-owned home, and he quickly finds himself vilified by his fiancé and his former friends. He befriends Ophelia, a prostitute who agrees to help him in exchange for a financial reward once he is exonerated. Meanwhile, the Dukes bail Valentine (Eddie Murphy) out of jail, install him in Winthorpe's former job and grant him use of Winthorpe's home. Valentine soon becomes well-versed in the business using his street smarts to achieve success, and begins to act well-mannered.

Then, in the third act, they discover the deceit, form a very John Landis plan for revenge on a train during New Year’s Eve where everyone dresses up like Halloween and featuring a Jim Belushi cameo and a gorilla having sex with a dude in a gorilla costume. Also, something about frozen orange juice stocks.

PROBLEMATIC MOMENTS/THEMES

If you can get past Justin Trudeau in blackface, then you can probably get over Dan Akroyd in blackface but, if not, that’s definitely a jarring moment in the endgame of Winthorpe and Billy Ray executing the switcheroo on the Duke brothers in the last thirty minutes.

There are plenty of other moments in the movie that would be considered problematic: 

  • Hey! Let’s have Jamie Lee Curtis show her spectacular tits at least twice! (And yes. They are fucking spectacular...)

  • How about Eddie Murphy calling the Dukes ‘faggots”?

  • Or that heavy emphasis on the word “nigger” to show the already callous monsters the Dukes are by demonstrating they’re bigots, too?

  • Speaking of tits, how about that scene when Murphy first gets his new house, invites over a bunch of people and three women with one line between them strip down to their waists and dance around for a pretty long time so we can see some more of them?

  • Lots of pretty blatant stereotyping of blacks and women.

Here’s the thing: in the lens of what is and is not problematic, making a movie about how horrifying and manipulative the wealthy are, how if you give a poverty-stricken black man lots of money he will suddenly blossom overnight into a Wall Street genius, and if you take away a white man’s privilege he will overnight turn into a depraved, suicidal criminal living with a whore gives you a lot of room for tits, homophobia, and racial epithets.

Plainly, the Woke can forgive a lot of micro-aggressions within the fabric of some true blue class warfare. Just use the opening credits to contrast young black kids playing basketball with a milk crate basket against a butler making croissants and your street cred is secure and shame-free.

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As it deals almost strictly with stereotypes for comic purposes — The Dukes (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) as callous, criminal and out of touch millionaires, Winthorpe (Ackroyd) as the most obnoxiously effete Harvard grad in film history, and Billy Ray (Murphy) as a grifting, lying, almost tap dancing ghetto rat — the one character that is so atypical as to tip the game over into complete and utter fairy tale is Ophelia (Curtis) as a beautiful prostitute in Philadelphia with no bruises, scars, all of her teeth, and using prostitution as a method of saving up money for her future rather than a job choice steeped in desperation.

I’ve met men like the Dukes, Winthorpe, and Billy Ray but the whore with a business plan, no pimp, and Christmas tree decorations in abundance is a unicorn so beyond any form of reality it makes the movie suddenly obvious in its attempt at satire. The fact that she falls in love with the asshat Winthorpe is also a stretch too far.

DID IT HOLD UP?

If, for no other reason, Trading Places is notable due to the appearance of a host of young actors who have become much more in their adulthood: Giancarlo Esposito, Al Franken, and John Bedford Lloyd all have brief moments plus a few more faces you’ll recognize in the early careers. I’m sure Esposito thrills at the memory of being cast as a black guy in jail for one of his early roles...

Reasonably entertaining until things spiral into that John Landis goofy shit territory (including gorilla rape), Trading Places is fine but not amazing. Jamie Lee Curtis, however, is amazing.

OVERALL

Scale of 1 to 10
1 = Classic
10 = Burn all VHS copies of it

Trading Places gets a 5.
Scenes with Curtis get a 1.

Next Up: Stripes (1981)

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