Once upon a time”
There was a commodities broker named Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), who lived like a prince. He was well educated, lived in a beautiful townhouse, had a loyal butler named Coleman (Denholm Elliott), was engaged to the beautiful Penelope Witherspoon (Kristin Holby) and was very well off financially. Then there was street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), who lived more like a pauper and whose education was that of the street-smart variety. Billy Ray didn’t have a butler or fiancé to speak of and most likely had a home that was more of the incarcerated variety than residential. For better or worse, the two men were pretty much set in their ways.
But when a chance “encounter” between the two occurs, Winthrop’s evil bosses, Randall (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche) Duke, take the opportunity to conduct an experiment on the unsuspecting duo, a test which stems from a long-standing argument between the Dukes regarding hereditary vs. environment: Mortimer believes that if Winthrope is stripped off all his wealth and comforts, he will adapt and rise to the new challenges presented to him, while Randall believes that Valentine will be the one to use what he has learned on the streets to take full advantage of his new situation and become a changed man.
With their usual wager “amount” in place, the Dukes carry out their experiment. Valentine adapts quite easily to his new situation, while Louis hits Skid Row quite hard and manages to sink even lower beyond that. Fortunately for Winthorpe, he meets a hooker with a heart of gold named Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis) who is willing to help him out” for a price.
Watching John Landis” Trading Places nearly a quarter of a century after its original release, one is certainly still entertained greatly by the film, but one can’t help but feel a bit sad as well. How so, you may ask? For starters, Places marked the last time that Landis actually delivered a comedy that was, well, decent (1988’s Coming To America has aged about as well as your average Hollywood actress). The filmmaker found that fine line between sharp social commentary and slapstick in Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod’s smart screenplay and walked it quite well. He knew when to play up the humor stemming from the script’s acute observations on class and race, and when to throw in his own trademark use of screwball comedy reminiscent of the 1930s (with a little modern-day vulgarity mixed in for good measure). After the fun excess of Animal House, The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf In London, Landis showed surprising restrain on his behalf to deliver a great comedy for adults, a facet that unfortunately never resurfaced in his later films.
Places was also one of the few remaining times that we would witness Eddie Murphy really giving it his comedic all in a role where he wasn’t providing the voice of a cartoon character. Sure, Murphy’s career, post Places, has showed comedic diversity (with the help of Rick Baker’s wonderful prosthetic makeup work) in Coming To America (he was good, the movie was not) and the 1996 update of The Nutty Professor as well as surprising dramatic range with his Oscar-nominated turn in the otherwise abysmal Dreamgirls. But in Trading Places, Murphy was on creative fire. As he did seven months prior with electrifying debut in 48 Hours, Murphy infused his character with the type of rapid-fire comic energy that has been sorely ever since, an energy that made his early days in show business so great to watch.
The same thing could be said about Aykroyd, but since this film came out a year prior to the original Ghostbusters and four years before his great, deadpan portrayal of Sgt. Joe Friday in the otherwise forgettable Dragnet, his fine comedic turn here was hardly his last one of note. He nails the upper-crust snobbery of Winthorpe perfectly (after living in Cambridge, Massachusetts for a few years, I found his pronunciation of the word Harvard to both perfect and capable of sending shivers down my spine) and delivers some pretty big laughs without going overboard in his performance (his attempted suicide in a Santa suit is still priceless).
In an era where the majority of comedies are simple-minded, vulgar garbage that would make only the simplest of minds guffaw in delight, the arrival of Trading Places on Blu-ray Disc is like seeing an old friend for the first time in a long time. It’s as smart, funny and entertaining today as it was twenty-four years ago.
Paramount continues its winning streak when it comes to bringing older catalog titles into the next-generation DVD age with Trading Places (although it loses points for branding it with the idiotic Looking Good, Feeling Good subtitle). Paramount continues to use different codecs in bringing their films to the Blu-ray and HD DVD formats, even though the end results are pretty much identical. Given the age of this film, the 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 encode looks as impressive as the HD DVD version (which is VC-1 encoded). The print is relatively blemish and scratch free (although grain is a bit more noticeable here than on the HD DVD edition), colors and black levels are solid while detail and sharpness are surprisingly strong. On occasion, there is some background softness, but nothing that is worth getting alarmed over.
While a slight bit of grain may be the one thing that sets the Blu-ray apart from the HD DVD, the audio departments are practically interchangeable (despite the HD DVD boasting a 5.1 Dolby Digital Plus soundtrack). For this new release, Trading Places has been given a new 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track. Sounds promising, but it really is nothing worth getting too excited over. Aside from the occasional use of Elmer Bernstein’s musical score, most of the film’s audio still comes from the center channel. Surrounds and bass are rarely used. Considering this is a comedy from the 1980s (one that was originally monaural), the sound mix on Blu-ray does get the job done. Center dialogue audio and left and front stereo channels come through nice and clear, with just enough fullness to satisfy the viewer.
Paramount has assembled a small but nice collection of bonus material for this special edition (the extras are the same on both the HD DVD and Blu-ray editions) and are of decent quality, even if they are presented in 480p, MPEG-2 encoded standard definition.
There is no commentary track to be had, but there is Pop-Up Trivia that shows up on the bottom part of the screen when activated. Full of trivia, both interesting and non, one can have this running throughout without it being distracting.
Inside Trading: the Making of Trading Places runs about eighteen and a half minutes and offers a candid retrospective look back at the making of the film and features recent interviews with Landis, Murphy (taken from a TV interview from a couple of years ago), Aykroyd, Curtis, the screenwriters and the film’s producer, George Folsey Jr. They discuss the origins of the film (it was originally entitled Black and White and was to star Gene Wilder and Richard Pryor), the studio’s reluctance to certain casting, Don Ameche’s objections to using the “F” word and, of course, Jamie Lee Curtis” nude scenes (which leads Landis to share a very funny anecdote regarding Steve Martin) and the fun everyone had making the movie (Murphy claims that it was “the last time he genuinely had fun working on a movie”). The tone is kept light and the stories are both interesting and amusing. Well worth a look.
Trading Stories (8 minutes) is a selection of long-lost interviews conducted with the cast and Landis at the time of the film’s release in the United Kingdom (check out that god awful outfit Murphy is wearing). Dressing the Part (6:11) is a quick interview with costume designer Deborah Nadoolman about, you got it, the clothing in the film. The Trade in Trading Places (5:11) is a quick look at the stock market that offers up interview with real-life traders.
Rounding out the extras is a rather amusing Industry Promotional Piece (4:15) that was put together for a film exhibitor’s convention back in 1983 and features Aykroyd and Murphy doing a fine job improvising, and one Deleted Scene (1:42) that can be viewed with or without commentary by George Folsey Jr. The scene involves the theft of the crucial crop report that sets up the climatic showdown at the Stock Exchange in New York City.
Trading Places is a smart, funny comedy for adults that, aside from the computers and car phones used, hasn’t aged all that much. Murphy and Aykroyd’s performances are still as funny as they were back in 1983, and Landis” directing is still among some of the best of his career. Paramount has given the HD crowd a very nice video and audio presentation to add to their collection, and the extras are also not all that bad. After nearly a quarter of a century, Trading Places is still indeed looking good and feeling good.
– Shawn Fitzgerald