by Pauline Kael
In Trading Places, Dan Aykroyd plays a snooty young blue-blood who runs a Philadelphia brokerage house, and Eddie Murphy plays a con man-beggar who disguises himself as a blind, legless Vietnam veteran. The two don’t exactly trade places; they’re traded, by a pair of heartless, rich old brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) who have made a heredity-versus-environment bet—something we’ve been spared in movies of the past few decades. Trading Places, which was written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod and directed by John Landis (Animal House, The Blues Brothers), is reminiscent of the kind of “classic” that turns up on TV at Christmastime, and it looks like a Christmas classic on a TV set that needs adjusting. It’s drab. It’s also eerily arch and static. Landis must think that he’s achieving a mock-thirties formal style; for the first hour he italicizes each scene, fixing it in place as if he wanted us to take an inventory of every detail. He seems to be saying, “I’m smarter than this.” It gets to the point where you may want to stand up in the theatre and say, “Yeah? Prove it.” The picture is pompous—the setups are so rigid I wanted to kick the camera to get it moving.
The comedies of the thirties and forties from which this movie was hatched were often based on Broadway plays, and they carried over stage devices, such as the valet-butlers with impeccable diction who were a great convenience to playwrights. (Preston Sturges parodied this tradition in The Lady Eve, where Henry Fonda’s valet—William Demarest—talked like a gangster gargling and was indignant when told to stay in his place.) The recent hit Arthur, which was derived from the same movie period as Trading Places, gave us John Gielgud as a valet father figure, and now we’ve got Denholm Elliott, coddling and grooming first Aykroyd and then Murphy. (Elliott hasn’t been given the lines he would need to make anything of the role, but when the camera gloms onto him he obliges with little grimaces.) One snag in antique dramaturgical devices such as butlers to populate an empty stage and manipulative millionaires to put a plot in motion by toying with men’s lives is that they push a movie into a time warp, and this one, with its stodgy look, suggests no period of the past or the present. And when Eddie Murphy speaks in modern slang he has a startling effect. He’s the only person in the movie who belongs to our era, and he’s a man of the eighties only in his speech. What he does in this movie is totally circumscribed by the plot mechanics.
The trajectories of the two men’s lives—the representative of white privilege sinking into crime and craziness while the black con artist rises to the heights of the establishment—are crosscut. The new, young scriptwriters don’t have the built-in clocks that the best screenwriters of the thirties had. Aykroyd’s descent to bumhood is rather blurry, and each time the movie cuts back to him he doesn’t seem to have deteriorated by more than two minutes. Murphy, on the other hand, whips through his initial changes, but then he has a nasty, humorless sequence in which he invites the people from a seamy ghetto bar to his town house for a party and promptly throws them all out, because some of them don’t use ashtrays, or coasters for their drinks, and a couple of the women are dancing topless. From the way this sequence is directed, you get the feeling that the con man has learned the value of fine possessions, and that the ghetto crowd would wreck any decent place they got into. That can’t be what was intended, can it? But the audience laughs contentedly. In a crude, dogged way, the movie has a sense of humor: it keeps telling you how terrific its sense of humor is. And it has that big, chugging structure working for it: the whole apparatus picks up some speed toward the end and comes to a rousing, slapstick finish, with the younger guys rich and the old skinflints punished. The audience appeared to like it.
This may seem like the attitude of a killjoy, but I wish the audience had groaned, because Landis’s timing is deadly—he makes everything obvious. And he doesn’t do much for his actors. Aykroyd uses one fairly effective comic shtick: he plays rich by keeping his face tilted up, the nose high, sniffing purer air, like a snobby dog in a cartoon. (Amusingly, it’s the very same trick that Don Ameche is still using for his rotten-rich character.) And Aykroyd the broker has a suggestion of a flabby, insecure boy who wants the praise of his employers—it makes him rather touching. Confusingly, though, he’s less appealing when he’s on the skids. Dan Aykroyd is all exteriors; he’s big and beefy, and, inspired as he has often been on TV, he doesn’t seem to have a strong personality. (That may be part of why he’s such a great impressionist.) I think he really is insecure playing the Harvard-educated young pup in three-piece suits, and we respond to the nervousness under the bluff of assurance. But when this plutocrat is stripped of everything and he turns into a low-comedy slob in loud plaids or a Santa Claus suit, Aykroyd falls back, relieved, on TV-sketch acting; he’s no longer a character, and we have no particular feeling for him. Eddie Murphy’s new-style savvy carries Trading Places, but this is only his second movie and he’s already just one step away from being in a niche. Murphy is like a child performer who’s too accomplished. His cockiness is uncannily knowing; he gets to your reflexes, like those Vegas veterans who make you feel that you’re enjoying them even while you’re pulling back. This isn’t a man possessed; this is a man who knows his audiences—he plays completely off their expectations. (White people couldn’t really learn anything of what it is to be black from Eddie Murphy; he’s playing off their ideas of what it is to be black.)
My most vivid recollection of Trading Places is of the faces of the two cops at the beginning who lift the supposedly legless con man off his rolling platform. His legs dangle in the air, but the two cops haven’t been directed to laugh or to look puzzled or to have any particular reaction. They just stand there—two stone-faced, bewildered actors, who have no idea what’s wanted of them—and we see them in closeup after closeup. Some of the people in the audience assume that the director is hip and knows what he’s doing, so they resolve their embarrassment in chuckling.
The New Yorker, July 11, 1983