It’s the most wonderful time of the year…that time when everyone debates what is or isn’t a Christmas movie. It depends! Is the movie about Christmas or is it just set at Christmas time? Well, while you guys are yelling at each other about which category Die Hard falls into (it’s the latter!), I’m watching a movie that begins post-Thanksgiving, cruises straight through the Christmas season, and ends after the New Year. I’m talking about my all-time favorite *holiday* movie, Trading Places.
Trading Places, released in 1982 and directed by John Landis, may as well have been titled National Lampoon’s Wall Street. It has all the raunchy jokes you’d expect in a Lampoon movie, and a lot of cringe-inducing moments that reeeeeally haven’t aged well. And yet, it fills my heart with the joy of the holiday season, and for that I am grateful.
As you surely know by now, Trading Places begins with two rich, white, racist old assholes, Mortimer and Randolph Duke (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy, respectively), who decide to conduct a real-life “nature vs. nurture” experiment on two very different and unsuspecting individuals: Louis Winthorpe (Dan Aykroyd), a rich, white stiff who works for the Dukes, and Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), a poor black man with a criminal past. The plan goes like this: the Dukes will frame Winthorpe for a crime he didn’t commit, while also bailing Billy Ray out of jail and giving him Winthorpe’s old job, house, and life. What’s the point the Dukes are trying to get at? Whether a person’s life is determined by their status at birth or by their environment. And exactly why are the Dukes doing this? I don’t know, man. Old rich dudes have some seriously screwed up hobbies.
The first phase of the plan is executed at The Heritage Club, which is like a social club for American Psycho characters but with less cocaine (I assume). Winthorpe is successfully framed for theft and drug possession, and loses his job, his house, his butler Coleman (who was in on it!), and his seriously uptight fiancee. Meanwhile, Billy Ray gets Winthorpe’s financial management job, his house, his butler, and some fancy suits. Winthorpe and Billy Ray both adjust to their new lives pretty quickly, all things considered. Winthorpe suddenly knows slang terms for drugs, and Billy Ray gets the hang of the financial markets with lightning speed. Of course, one of the Duke brothers is rooting for Billy Ray to fail. Mortimer, the most racist of the two, believes that because Billy Ray is black and grew up poor and in a broken home, that he will resort to a life of crime. Eat shit, Mortimer.
OK, now that all that unpleasantness is out of the way, let’s talk about the holidays! While this certainly isn’t a traditional Christmas movie, it gets me in the Christmas spirit for a few reasons. Yes, there is Christmas imagery and music, and there’s also Dan Aykroyd dressed as the dirtiest, drunkest Santa in history. And we have flawless Jamie Lee Curtis as Ophelia, the hooker with a heart of gold, who takes Winthorpe in, lets him breathe his disgusting germs all over her apartment, and helps him exact revenge on the Dukes. Slight deduction from Ophelia’s cool points due to the obscene amount of tinsel she puts on only one part of her Christmas tree, but I’ll allow it because she’s a joy throughout the movie.
And speaking of the supporting cast, one actor who I think turned in the most underrated performance of the movie is Paul Gleeson as the Dukes’ henchman, Clarence Beeks. He only has a handful of scenes, but he is the angriest, most determined fella you’ve ever seen. He shoves people, swears at them for no good reason, and is responsible for one of the funniest, saltiest lines: “I’ll rip out your eyes and piss on your brain.” So mad, Clarence! And so delightful!
Christmas comes and goes, and Billy Ray and Winthorpe’s plan to take down the Dukes will come to fruition right after the New Year. Billy Ray, Winthorpe, Ophelia, and Coleman cook up a scheme that involves crop reports and hopping on a New Year’s Eve party train to New York. They’re going to steal the crop report from our man Beeks, swap it with a fake, and corner the Frozen Orange Juice market (!!!). The train scene is bananas, no pun intended. We have great cameos by Tom Davis, Al Franken, a pretty unrealistic gorilla, and Jim Belushi (another underrated performance). And now we’ve arrived on Wall Street for the Big Dukes Take-down. OK I have seen this movie a million times, I was once (briefly) a business major, and I’ve read lots of explainers about the end of this movie. I still don’t understand what the hell happened. I mean, I generally get it in the “buy low, sell high” kind of way, and I know the plan ruins the Dukes (yay!), but I will never fully grasp the trading floor scene. The best explanation I ever read was something like, “the funny men did a lie and money came out.” Now that, I get.
This Christmas, after you’ve watched It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street or Die Hard, why not gather your loved ones, curl up on the couch, and watch the funny men ruin two crusty old dickheads. ‘Tis the season!