For the ninth film of Christmas my true love gave to me . . . a film from 1983 when Eddie Murphy was still funny.
OK, hands up everyone that remember when Eddie Murphy last made a good film (when he wasn’t the voice of a donkey). It was a long time ago, wasn’t it? About as long as when Dan Ackroyd. Yeah, Eddie Murphy was pretty cool as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop (1984) and Dan Ackroyd was pretty funny in Ghostbusters (1984) and Grosse Pointe Blank (1997), but really, when you really think about it, neither of them has made a film as good or as funny as the one they made in 2003. And that film was the amazing Trading Places. I said in my last blogpost that Christmas Vacation was one of the funniest Christmas films of all time, and that’s true, but Trading Places is undoubtedly THE funniest Christmas film ever made. To be honest, it’s not strictly a Christmas film, more of a film set at Christmas, but I don’t care – I love this film.
Not only was this Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd’s finest hour (or one hour and fifty-six minutes, if you want to be picky), both delivering masterclasses in the art of comic timing; it was also Jamie Lee Curtis’s best comic performance until Charles Chrichton and John Cleese’s brilliant crime caper A Fish Called Wanda (1988) and James Cameron’s genuinely funny True Lies (1994). If that wasn’t enough there’s veteran actors Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche playing a couple of greedy, callous millionaires who set the whole story of the film in motion. Paul Gleason had never been better as the slimy Clarence Beeks, and just to put the icing on the cake there was that much loved British character actor, Denholm Elliott, who is sadly no longer with us. He was like the Steve Buscemi of his day, and by that I mean he could be cast in any film, and no matter what part he played it would be him you remembered most when you walked out of the cinema. There was saying in Hollywood that went, “Never work with animals or children.” By the 1970s and 1980s it had to be changed to, “Never work with animals or children or Denholm Elliott.” He was brilliant actor who could create a lasting impression on an audience, and despite limited screen time or the flimsiest of scripts he could effortlessly steal a film from under the noses of even the bankable stars.
So here we have a film with a dream cast, all working at the peak of their powers, and the chemistry between the four main characters (Murphy, Ackroyd, Curtis and Elliott) is palpable. Unfortunately you can have the best cast in the world but without a good script they will be wasted. Trading Places didn’t have a good script – it had a great script by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, who would go on to write Twins (1998) and Kindergarten Cop (1990) and who claimed that they had learned everything they knew about scriptwriting by reading William Goldman’s book Adventures in the Screen Trade. Add to that mix director John Landis who already had three hugely successful films under his belt, all of which are now regarded as classics of their wildly different genres – Animal House (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980) and An American Werewolf in London (1981).
So, what’s it all about?
Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Ackroyd) is a spoiled Managing Director at Duke & Duke Commodities. Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) is a down-and-out street hustler. Randolph Duke (Ralph Bellamy) makes a bet with his brother Mortimer (Don Ameche) for one dollar that the two men cannot be successfully switched, and so Valentine is taken off the streets and cleaned up while Winthorpe is unceremoniously disgraced and thrown out onto the street. Ophelia, a hooker with a heart of gold (Jamie Lee Curtis) takes Winthorpe in whilst Valentine quickly becomes snobbish and spoiled himself. Denholm Elliott is Coleman, Winthorpe’s unwilling butler who gets caught up the Duke Brothers’ dastardly scheming. Once the four realise what’s going on they team up and hatch a plan to get their own back on the Dukes.
If the story sounds familiar that’s because it’s an updated version of Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper.
Do Winthorpe and Valentine get their revenge on the Dukes? Well, you’ll just have to find out for yourself in what is easily the best acted, scripted and directed Christmas comedy ever made.
If you haven’t seen this brilliant film before you are in for a real treat. If you have seen it before watch it again if only to remind yourself of the time when Eddie Murphy and Dan Ackroyd were on the top of their game.
Or you can watch just because it’s got Denholm Elliott in it.