Door 16 of The James Proclaims Advent Calendar Of Christmas(ish) films brings us a movie that is, in many ways, a certified comedy classic. It’s also something of a conundrum.
1983’s Trading Places has, in Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, two of eighties cinema’s finest comedic talents at the top of their game. On paper, there’s nothing not to love about it.
Except,of course, that there is plenty not to love…
Because, although the film is definitely holding up a mirror to racism, snobbery and the sense of entitlement of the privileged few, there are many moments when it perpetuates racial stereotypes in spite of its obvious good intentions.
And quite why there is so much gratuitous female nudity is anyone’s guess – none of it feels particularly pertinent to the plot (obviously teenage me would have disagreed profoundly with current me on that point…)
And for a film that is trying so hard to point out racial ignorance, it absolutely beggars belief that, towards the denouement of the movie, Dan Aykroyd ‘blacks up’. I have no idea how this was viewed in 1983, but in 2017 it’s pretty shocking to see.
Trading Places is a lot bleaker in tone than it first appears. It initially seems like it’s going to be a fairly light-hearted affair, yet one of the main characters attempts suicide. Twice.
And there’s the bit, around the same time as Aykroyd’s misjudged Jamaican caricature, that we see a man (a chameo by James Belushi, otherwise known as ‘the lesser Belushi’) dressed as a gorilla in a fancy dress party and a real gorilla (at least ‘real’ within the context of the plot, although it’s clearly also a man in a gorilla suit, albeit a gorilla suit that is marginally superior to the ‘fancy dress’ gorilla suit). And you kind of know where it’s going. There a real gorilla and a man dressed like a gorilla. Classic movie mistaken identity is going to happen, resulting in much hilarity.
Except it doesn’t really pan out that way. Instead, one of the principal bad guys is forced into Belushi’s gorilla costume and locked in the cage with the ‘real’ (and strangely amorous) gorilla and, well, things take a very dark turn. I mean he is definitely a bad guy, but still, his punishment does seem disproportionately horrific. And there’s no real resolution for that character. As far as we can tell, he is doomed to spend the rest of his days receiving the unwanted sexual advances of a primate.
And there’s no escaping the fact that Jamie-Leigh Curtis’ ‘Ophelia’ is a two dimensional cliched character. Curtis does an amazingly good job in fairness to her, but, as the only female character of note in the entire film, she could’ve been given a bit more to work with.
In spite of all it’s failings (and not all of them can be blamed on the fact it was made in 1983) Trading Places is a hugely entertaining film. When it gets things right, as, to be fair, it does for much of the running time, it is truly hilarious.
It’s just that when it gets it wrong it can leave you feeling more than a little uncomfortable.
I do really like Trading Places but I’m not always sure that I should like it.
Score For Christmasishness
The narrative of the film seems to run from just before Thanksgiving, to New Year’s Day, definitely covering the Christmas period. There are clear visible signs throughout the movie that it is Christmas time. Towards the end of the ‘second act’ Dan Aykroyd is dressed as down-at-heel Santa Claus (who rather implausibly seems to have gatecrashed a party full of executives without anyone noticing).
It’s not a true Christmas film, it would work perfectly well as a story if set at another time of year, but Christmas time does seem like a reasonable backdrop for this particular narrative and the film is probably stronger for the festive theme.
I could understand why someone might include this amongst their festive favourites.