Viking Night: Trading Places

By Bruce Hall

December 31, 2013

It was a weird Christmas for everyone that year.

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One of the reasons Trading Places still works so well is because every generation comes up with a reason to despise Wall Street. This is a movie made at a time not unlike our own. Fresh off an extended period of economic nightmare, the gap between the haves and the have-nots was pretty fresh on America’s mind. Everyone loves to hate the rich and powerful, especially when it looks like they’re enjoying all that richness and powerfulness. Wall Street is where all the targets are and it’s where Trading Places begins, by showing us a day in the life of Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche). The brothers are obscenely wealthy, Old Money commodities brokers. And when I say “obscenely wealthy”, I mean that the process of getting dressed for work requires the choreography skills of a couple dozen people.

The Dukes’ most trusted advisor is Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), the snooty, ambitious but devoutly loyal manager of Duke & Duke investments. Louis is rich, handsome, and has lots of rich and handsome friends. He is also about to marry a girl who looks like every Victoria’s Secret model smooshed into one. Winthorpe and his money grubbing masters make money hand over fist during the day, and spend their evenings at the country club chortling over whiskey sours about how poor people probably taste like chicken. They preside over a multimillion dollar empire that practically runs itself, and it’s paying off handsomely.


But then a vagrant named Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) literally bumps into Winthorpe one day, and everything changes. Initially arrested for assault, Valentine is rotting away in jail, waiting for the system to come down on him when he’s mysteriously released. Apparently the Dukes believe that rich people are rich because they inherently work harder and are more motivated than their counterparts on the other end of the economic spectrum. And people are poor, of course, because they are all lazy and on drugs, and are also probably African-American. So being the competitive siblings that they are, the Dukes decide to conduct an impromptu social experiment using Valentine, who is poor and black, and Winthorpe, who is totally not. The brothers concoct an elaborate scheme to discredit Winthorpe and utterly destroy his life, and put Valentine in his place.

Their one dollar wager is this: Can a rich, successful businessman be turned into an unemployed transient through severe negative reinforcement, and can a homeless person learn to run a corporation with nothing but good intentions and the right amount of moral support? Are they – and all of us, by extension – the product of our inherent nature (this would be Mortimer’s extremely racist opinion), or can anyone be motivated to great things, given the proper environment (Randolph’s view)? With the help of a surly private investigator (Paul Gleason, in his prime) and a hooker with a heart of gold (Jamie Lee Curtis, also in hers), the Dukes are playing games with real lives.

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