Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
In 1983, Trading Places marked Eddie Murphy’s second step toward world cinematic domination. He made his first big move with 1982’s 48 Hours, a solid hit that influenced buddy movies for years to come. 1984 brought Murphy’s greatest success, the smash Beverly Hills Cop. The year’s second highest grossing effort, Cop took in an amazing $234 million and established Murphy as one of the biggest box office draws.
Unfortunately, Murphy started to believe his own hype, and most of the films he made for the following decade seemed passable at best; he wouldn’t recover until 1996’s popular Nutty Professor. Even since then, Murphy still offers more than a few clunkers; in fact, Pluto Nash looks to become one of the biggest flops of all-time.
But back in 1983, Murphy still had many worlds to conquer, and the consistently entertaining Places offered a fine look at his talents. The movie focuses on two characters: Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd) and Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), men at totally different stations in life. Winthorpe enjoys a position at brokerage firm Duke and Duke, where he earns a six figure salary and gets many perks. He plans to marry lovely Penelope (Kristin Holby) and all seems well in his insulated little world.
On the other hand, we find Valentine on the streets. An unemployed con man, he initially pretends to be blind and legless as a scam. After a mild rousting by the cops, Valentine accidentally bumps into Winthorpe and knocks him to the ground. Valentine helpfully tries to hand over Winthorpe’s dropped briefcase, but Winthorpe freaks and thinks Valentine wants to steal it. The authorities quickly descend on him and Valentine ends up in the pokey.
His case attracts the attention of Winthorpe’s employers, the Duke brothers. Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) thinks people’s behavior emanates from their environment, whereas Mortimer (Dom Ameche) believes that genetics determine success or failure. The contrast between Valentine and Winthorpe intrigues them, so they place a bet with each other. They plan to snatch Valentine from the streets and put him in Winthorpe’s privileged place. They set him up in Winthorpe’s house and give him his job. In the meantime, they set up Winthorpe in such ways that he loses his job, his money, his house and his girl.
Luckily for him, Winthorpe meets the proverbial hooker with the heart of gold. Used as part of the set-up, Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) takes pity on Winthorpe and gives him a hand. While Valentine prospers in his new setting, Winthorpe schemes to return to his prior prominence.
The rest of the story follows from there. Some of the film’s humor comes from the “fish out of water” elements, as we see both Winthorpe and Valentine in new situations. However, the flick doesn’t depend on those circumstances as much as one expects. Places seems much more plot-based than I’d expect. Valentine uncovers the Duke’s bet about midway through the movie, and the rest of the picture mainly concentrates on efforts to turn the tables.
I’ve always liked Places, but it never seemed like anything terribly special. When it works, it does so due to its talent. I believe Places offered the first cinematic meeting between dual generations of Saturday Night Live performers. I suppose you could consider the Bill Murray/Chevy Chase pairing in since they didn’t work on the show at the same time, but since Murray replaced Chase, that seems like a stretch. Murphy enjoyed no connection whatsoever with the show’s original cast, so I think this film provided the first time actors from the different eras hit the screen together.
While both Murphy and Aykroyd did well in their roles, they didn’t show much chemistry in the scenes they shared. This caused few problems since they spent most of the movie separated, but I couldn’t say that they showed sparks or much compatibility when they appeared together. I don’t know why this occurred. Even though they never worked on the show at the same time, Chase and Murray demonstrated a nice casual tone during their brief shared scene in Caddyshack. Perhaps that stemmed from the fact that neither actor really served as a lead in that flick. It presented an ensemble cast with no particular star, even though many folks primarily remember Murray from the film.
On the other hand, both Aykroyd and Murphy could claim starring status for Places, and some competition between the two may have occurred. That could explain some of the absence of chemistry between the pair; when they shared the screen, I got the feeling each one strived to be the top dog. I can’t say this tendency negatively affected the movie, but I would have liked to see a bit more of a connection between the pair.
When seen alone - which occurred during the majority of the film - both Murphy and Aykroyd seemed fine. As they initiated their roles, both actors portrayed the characters in fairly cartoony ways, but they humanized the men as the film progressed. Aykroyd probably enjoyed fewer solid comedic opportunities, but his relationship with Ophelia allowed him greater depth. Murphy’s Valentine tended more toward the funny stuff, and the actor aptly delivered the goods. He didn’t provide the same level of breakout work seen in his other two early hits - Valentine didn’t get any show-stopping scenes like the bar segment in 48 Hours - but he offered a nice general level of humor that kept the film light.
Places also benefited from a solid supporting cast. The film helped revive the careers of Ameche and Bellamy, and while both characters seemed one-sided, the actors managed to make them lively and entertaining. Curtis generally did well, though she tried a little too hard to break out of her prior restraints. Before Places, she became known as the “Scream Queen” star of horror flicks like Halloween and The Fog; Places existed as a clear attempt on her part to break from that mold. She also wanted to come across as a sex symbol, so she presented copious amounts of skin, and it came across as somewhat forced and self-conscious. Still, Curtis offered a light and charming presence for the most part, so I won’t complain.
Really, I found little about which I could gripe when I watched Trading Places, though the movie didn’t seem quite as hilarious as I recalled. It offered a generally amusing and entertaining experience, and it worked fairly well across the board. It just didn’t excel at much, as it remained a pleasant flick but not much more than that.