Ah, that blissful week between Christmas and the start of the New Year. It’s a time where we start thinking ahead to what the future could possibly hold, while also reminiscing about the year that just passed. People everywhere are enjoying time with their families (up until the point where they need to run off to a bar to escape their families), and office jobs grind to a slow level of productivity as many people take advantage of the two quick holidays for some time off. It’s a time of reflection, yet one filled with hopes and dreams about what the future may hold.
Which, naturally, makes it a perfect time to look at one more holiday movie. It may not be your usual idea of holiday fare, but it certainly fits for me, and it carries a feel-good message.
Trading Places (1983)
Randolph and Mortimer Duke have more money than they know what to do with. They’ve been very successful making commodities trades, owning their own brokerage. The two decide that they should engage in a little social experiment, to help them solve their differences on the subject of “nature vs nurture”. To complete this experiment, the two plan on taking one person from wealth (their managing director, Louis Winthorpe III, played by Dan Aykroyd) and swap them with a person from poverty (a hustler named Billy Ray Valentine, played by Eddie Murphy). Randolph believes that it is the environment that impacts a person, while Mortimer doesn’t feel that people can rise above the station they were born into. The winner of the bet will receive $1, because, well, they have to make it interesting, but not too interesting.
What follows is a bit of a deconstruction of social status. Winthorpe suddenly finds himself thrust into poverty, while the man he got arrested rises to the highest ranks of the commodities brokerage. It’s during the annual company Christmas party (see, I TOLD you it’s a holiday movie) that the master plan of the Dukes is discovered by Valentine, which leads to him working together with Winthorpe to bring the whole experiment crashing down. A bit of a convoluted plot point around insider information is tossed in, all leading up to the grand finale, where Winthorpe and Valentine corner the orange juice market the Dukes were hoping to get a stranglehold on. They even have a book-end with the $1 bet, this time at the expense of the Duke brothers.
Aside from the general concept that $1 is totally worth potentially ruining the lives of others (although, even in today’s society, it’s hard to argue that the super-rich wouldn’t be willing to do something similar for a laugh), the film does hold up as a way of looking at social status. It doesn’t just deal with economic status, either, as the rich white man is cast low into a poverty previously known by the poor black man, and vice versa. Race is addressed, and the film, although comedic, does point out that a more level playing field for all is something to aspire to. After all, when given the opportunity, Valentine is able to become just as successful as Winthorpe, after having been shut out of such endeavors largely due to socio-economic status, with a bit of racial prejudice built in.
One of the interesting things about the film is how it’s actually changed how the real-world commodities markets work. Called the “Eddie Murphy Rule”, there is now a law on the books that prevents commodities traders from engaging in the exact same actions carried out in the film (well, the intended actions. Pretty sure it’s always been illegal to lock someone up in a gorilla cage). The film also stands up when looking at the differences in socio-economic levels. In fact, it might resonate even more in today’s society, given that the gap between the rich and the poor is greater than it was in 1983, and doesn’t show any sign of getting smaller.
As for the stars of the film, the movie was made during the brightest times in the careers of both Aykroyd and Murphy. Aykroyd was just about to enter the world of Ghostbusters, and Murphy was set to create Axel Foley for Beverly Hills Cop. Trading Places really represents a time for both actors when they were able to successfully make the jump from the small screen to the big one, and, their budding star power, coupled with direction from John Landis, really helps make the film stand up.
The story of Trading Places is a similar one that has been done a number of times, but that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t have been refreshed. Besides, in a lot of ways, taking two people and physically swapping their location is a lot more satisfying (and plausible) than doing it through some weird spell or other magic happenstance. I just hope that, should anyone find themselves in a similar situation, they at least add a couple of zeros to the end of their wager.
I mean, $1 in 1983 is the equivalent of $323,212 today. Or something like that. I’ve never claimed to be good at math.