It’s Christmas time! Time to revisit our Why Watch This list of all time great holiday movies! Never seen these- this is your chance to catch up on some classics.
Watching Trading Places in 2013 makes 1983 seem like it was 150 years ago instead of only 30. And it’s not that I believe that some of the racial attitudes and stereotypes aren’t still hidden away in the hearts and minds of those of us living in 2013, it’s more about how upfront they are about it. Nowadays, we are much more subversive when we are racist. We are all so self-aware about how we are perceived by everyone that it is hard to imagine a movie like Trading Places happening now. But what makes Trading Places a terrific movie, and why I can watch it every single time it is on, is not the plot, or the lessons that can be learned by the characters, it’s the little moments, the glances or lines, that expose the world and endear the characters. And make you laugh, oh boy do they make you laugh.
The plot is simple: Brothers Randolph and Mortimer Duke (played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy) rule the commodities market. Their firm in Philadelphia has been around for decades and is the epitome of white upper class honkeyism. Dan Ackroyd plays Louis Winthorpe. Louis manages he Duke firm, lives in a Duke owned brownstone, and is engaged to the Duke’s debutante niece Penelope. Randolph likes to read Scientific American when they are sitting in their leather easy chairs within the dark wood paneled walls of their club, and he has a theory about the whole “nature vs. nurture” debate. After their club is inadvertently interrupted by Billy Ray Valentine, played by Eddie Murphy, being chased by the police, the brothers concoct a bet. Randolph believes that if you take anyone off of the street (aka Billy Ray) and give them the life and opportunity as someone like Louis, then he will rise to the occasion and thrive. Conversely, if you take away the life and opportunity from someone like Louis then he will descend into crime and end up on the streets.
The brothers put their experiment in motion and give Billy Ray Louis’ life while at the same time discrediting Louis and kicking him to the street. Randolph ends up being right, Billy Ray understands the commodities market almost instantly (“You’re just a coupla bookies!” He exclaims and Randolph nods knowingly). Louis, after enlisting the help of prostitute Ophelia, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, descends quickly and ultimately ends up threatening everyone at the Duke firm’s Christmas party with a gun while drunk (and dressed as Santa! See, drunken Santas are the key to all good Holiday movies!). Randolph wins the bet, and while collecting his winnings ($1! “The usual amount”), he and Mortimer sum up their scheme in the bathroom while being overheard by Billy Ray.
Billy Ray is horrified to hear what has happened, as we all are to hear Mortimer exclaim, “Do you think I would have a (insert N word here) run our firm?” He seeks out Louis, tells him what has happened and the two plot a revenge scheme that involves trains, Jim Belushi in a gorilla suit, Dan Ackroyd in blackface, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Lederhosen. Ok, maybe a little bit off the rails, but you’re along for the ride, so just go.
So, anyway, let’s get back to what makes this movie great. “He was wearing my Harvard tie, like oh sure, he went to Harvard,” Louis says to Ophelia after having seen Billy Ray in Louis’ limousine, um, wearing his Harvard tie. Once, when I was much younger, I drove a co-worker crazy by repeating that line over and over again for like 30 minutes. The key is to use a “Harvard” accent, and draw out the rs. The only explanation I have was that I was trying to make Eric, who worked with me at the time, laugh, and we liked to torture this poor girl who worked with us, so it made sense.
But it’s the little lines, the little moments like that. Like when Randolph is explaining the commodities market to Billy Ray and is slowly and deliberately explaining what a pork belly is, “Like bacon, that you might put in a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich.” Billy Ray lifts his head and looks directly into the camera in this moment. He doesn’t smile or wink but you instantly connect with him, you are instantly drawn into the joke. Really? He’s saying to us, really? And we get it, we are in on it. Ultimately I would argue that is where it transcends all the racial stereotypes throughout, you connect with the humanity of the characters and by doing so realize how ridiculous the stereotypes are. Billy Ray throws a big party for all of his “friends” and they trash the place. He ends up throwing them out and has a nice little moment with the butler, Coleman where he thanks him for cleaning up. You can tell by the look on Coleman’s face that no one has ever thanked him before.
It’s the moments like those, plus the drunken Santa that make this one of my favorites. In fact, I use the following formula: Funny Sayings You Can Drive People Crazy With + Drunken Santas * Any Use of the Word “Pookums” – Jim Belushi in a gorilla suit= 8.5 on the happy go fun Holiday Movie scale of Why Watch This.