Gwenesday Movie Night: Trading Places (1983)

I was looking for an unconventional holiday movie, and I might have gotten more than I bargained for


Gwen Pemberton (she/her) // Arts & Culture Editor


Honestly, I just wanted to do something nice. I wanted to think outside the box and review a holiday movie that you might not otherwise have heard about. I could have watched Home Alone, or Christmas Vacation or even an oddball — and one of my family’s favourites — Office Christmas Party. But no. 


Instead I watched Trading Places, which just so happens to take place in and around Christmas and New Years. Despite the holiday setting, I would suggest skipping this one with your loved ones. It might lead to some uncomfortable conversations.


Trading Places is a modern retelling of the classic Prince and the Pauper story. Dan Aykroyd plays Louis Winthorpe III, a stiff-collared, upper-crust finance worker. Eddie Murphy — in his second on-screen role — plays Billy Ray Valentine, a beggar and small-time con man. With some malicious interference, Aykroyd’s two executive bosses make a wager, curious if they can turn Valentine into a model employee at their firm, and simultaneously force Winthorpe into a life of common crime. 


Once their plan is set in motion the film plays out as you might expect. Valentine quickly adapts to a life of means, demonstrating his character and savvy once the road blocks of poverty are removed. Winthorpe slowly spirals as his friends abandon him and his creature comforts are stripped from him. 


The satire of the film pokes fun at the vapid, greed-driven culture of the 80s, and it does have some clever moments. Murphy’s comedic timing was impeccable in the film. He and Jamie Lee Curtis as Ophelia, a sex worker saving up for retirement, were the highlights for me. 


Trading Places also has a surprisingly nuanced take on sex work for 1983, pointing out the false conceptions often leveled at people like Ophelia. She is sharp, funny, caring, and completely independent. Upon meeting Winthorpe she takes him under her wing and quickly sets him straight, saying: “The only thing I’ve got going for me, is this body, this face, and what I got up here. I don’t do drugs. And I don’t have a pimp.”


Unfortunately, that was where the nuance stopped, for me, at least. I knew that a John Landis comedy from the 80s might not be the most comfortable watch by today’s standards. Between some flippant uses of the F-slur and some hard-core African stereotyping the first half of the film was off to a rocky start. The pacing dragged and the character development, particularly for Aykroyd’s character, felt extremely rushed. Unfortunately matters did not improve from there.


Around the start of the third act my jaw dropped when one of Winthorpe’s bosses dropped the N-word, and my disbelief only grew when the third act incorporated Aykroyd in blackface, doing his best (read worst) impression of a Jamaican accent. 


I was slightly baffled when I went to look at reviews for Trading Places. Over and over critics and audience members referred to it as clever, witty, and sharp. A satire that cuts America down to the bone. I found a lot of the comedy felt much more like a blunt instrument. Aykroyd and Murphy do play well off each other, and the scenes in which they interact were quite entertaining, but most of the moments in between fell flat for me.


The parts that I did enjoy are best showcased in the climax of the film, which sees Winthorpe and Valentine team up to take down the men who conspired to ruin them. The banter, the satire and the timing all come together for an enjoyable ending. Although the fact that it takes place in the World Trade Center did serve as one final stark reminder of the times.


Trading Places shows up on a lot of lists of unconventional holiday movies. Though I certainly agree, I wouldn’t jump to add it to the rotation. The chemistry between the leads and some smart comedy about the financial sector couldn’t save this fairly predictable comedy for me. Lacking a certain holiday charm and containing a lot more racism and homophobia than I was prepared for on a Wednesday afternoon, I suggest you trade in Trading Places for more traditional holiday fare. Sometimes the classics are classics for a reason.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *