Good comedies are hard to come by, but any movie from the 1980s with Eddie Murphy in it is guaranteed to generate more than a few belly laughs and a fun time overall. Trading Places is just one of his many hits during an era where his superstardom was at its peak. Unfortunately, this so-called "35th Anniversary Edition" is a mere re-packaging of the original ten-year-old Blu-ray release, which is a shame since it remains one Murphy's (not to mention co-star Dan Aykroyd and director John Landis's) best films. So while the recycled contents do not justify double-dipping, new fans will want to pick up this Recommended title.
For those who were not part of the movie-going public back during the Reagan Revolution, the personality that was (is?) Eddie Murphy cannot be overstated. His rise to fame on Saturday Night Live (during one of its most notoriously lousy seasons in the show's history) and subsequent breakthrough success in 48 Hours made him one of the hottest talents around. Even in critically detested movies like The Golden Child and Best Defense (which amounted to little more than a cameo appearance), his name guaranteed box office success and redeemed even his most disappointing work (Harlem Nights, Beverly Hills Cop II).
Trading Places was his second big screen appearance, and while not necessarily a classic of cinema, the movie is still one of his best. Directed by John Landis while in the midst of his infamous Twilight Zone The Movie fiasco, the film adapts the Prince and The Pauper in a modern setting of big business and “capitalism at its finest” (to quote Wall Street’s Gordon Gecko). The movie earns its "R"-rating due to some obscenities and some gratuitous female nudity, but it's certainly less sleazy than the "adult situations" we see in most of today's comedies. Landis's films always have a haphazard quality to them, when it comes to consistency in tone and pacing (An American Werewolf in London and Into The Night are two examples). He often mixes up realistic drama with obvious and over-the-top comedy bits involving caricatures and stereotypes, and Trading Places is no exception, particularly towards the end where certain events devolve into an unfunny farce.
Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine and Dan Aykroyd plays Louis Winthorpe. Both are pawns in a social game contrived by old money Duke brothers Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche). The two are commodities brokers who debate whether it is nature or nurture which basically shapes the financial destiny of a man. For a one dollar bet, they throw the refined, blue-blooded Aykroyd into the lower class populated by criminals, pimps and hookers (Jamie Lee Curtis plays the tough but gold-hearted Ophelia) and “promote” the urban-bred, disenfranchised minority Billy Ray (now re-Christened “William” by the Duke brothers) into that of corporate power. Louis hits rock bottom and turns to crime, and Murphy soon discovers that despite his success, the Dukes would never accept him as one of their own.
Aided and assisted by Ophelia and butler Coleman (the always likable Denholm Elliot), our heroes concoct a scheme to get back against Randy and Morty right where it hurts, by cornering the futures market on a certain commodity, namely, oranges. Aside from the comedic moments, the movie provides insight and criticism into the hypocrisies of the different classes, as Billy Ray discovers how he is used by his friends for his new riches, and Louis finds his former peers abandoning him amidst his own scandal.
Reviewing this 35th anniversary (not so) special edition once again confirms in my mind that this is Murphy's movie all the way. His natural wit, impeccable timing, and high energy charisma are at their peak here, and his performance as a streetwise but not necessarily street-tough hoodlum who adapts into the "higher" class is fun and funny. There are many memorable scenes (his initial appearance as fraudulently disabled Vietnam Veteran named "Agent Orange" never gets old) and quotable lines ("Hey! Haven't you people ever heard of coasters?!" he screams at his freeloading party guests) and he delivers his character without being obnoxious or glory-hogging.
The remaining cast is very good, especially veteran actors Bellamy and Ameche, who are suitably stuffy but playful as the film's main villains, as well as Curtis, who doesn't over-play her role. However, Dan Aykroyd is probably the most lackluster of the bunch. That’s not to say that his acting is poor, or that his performance is incompetent. However, there is a general monotone in his voice and a blandness to his personality which undercut any potential humor in his social and economic downfall. In one scene, he dresses as Santa Claus and attempts to steal food and frame Billy Ray, and it ends up only slightly amusing. Earlier, he is set-up as a drug-dealing pimp by Curtis and when his girlfriend Penelope (Kristin Holby) abandons him, all he can react is with a flatly delivered "Grand. Great. Thanks a lot!" I understand that his character is supposed to be upper-crust and stately, but I could also imagine a much better movie if he was replaced by an actor with a more subtle comic timing and irony like Charles Grodin (think Midnight Run) or even Joe Piscopo (just kidding). Suffice to say, when Eddie’s onscreen the movie is lively, energetic and fun. When we turn back to Aykroyd’s character, the movie slows down considerably, as the audience patiently waits for Murphy to reappear. Even worse, the build-up to the climax is burdened by a set-piece in which Billy Ray, Louis, Ophelia and Coleman assume different identities and go to great lengths in order to steal information from Duke brothers’ lacky, Clarence Beeks (Paul Gleason, best known as the Principal in The Breakfast Club). Seeing Aykroyd in blackface as a weed-smoking Rastafarian is offensive simply because the character isn’t funny at all. (Then again, none of them are.) Cameos by SNL alumni Al Franken and Tom Davis, as well as James Belushi and a gorilla (a trademark character in Landis films) prolong the tired masquerade, where even the ensemble of talent can’t liven things up. It's an unfunny misfire in an otherwise well-paced movie.
Still, the movie succeeds despite these problems, and again, credit must go to Mr. Murphy. He and John Landis would be reunited five years later on another hit, the more romantic and less cynical Coming to America, and then bomb spectacularly years later in the stunningly bad sequel Beverly Hills Cop III. Some creative reunions are better left unrequited.
Shortly after viewing the film, I did some online research as to this Blu-ray production for the first time. I was surprised to learn that this release is the exact same presentation as the "Looking Good, Feeling Good" Blu-ray from 2007. While I have no objection to the picture quality and "dated" bonus materials, it is a shame that a picture which represents a high point in the cast and crews' careers was not, at the very least, given a new and updated transfer. Perhaps Paramount is saving that for a 4K release, but an advertised anniversary edition should not be just a mere repackaging of the same product.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Trading Places comes on a single platter 25GB disc housed in a blue keepcase and wrapped in a slipcover which basically reprints the insert. A single page insert provides the Digital Copy code. There are no other supplements. Once inserted in your player, the Blu-ray goes directly into a colorfully animated menu with stills basically summarizing the movie to come.
The MPEG-4 AVC-encoded picture is presented in 1080p high definition with an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and looks very, very good overall. Having never owned a copy of Trading Places in any video format, I was not able to compare this Blu-ray presentation of the movie with any other. I will say that the opening shots of Philadephia, in all its picturesque and colorful wonder, are a good indication of the main movie to come. All throughout, I was trying to nitpick flaws and problems which might come with a picture made in the early 1980s and was able to detect nothing of significance. The video exhibits a somewhat soft picture with a consistent grain structure which is pleasing to the eye. Fine details are generally lacking, but in a comedy where line deliveries and facial expressions are all important, microscopic lines and textures are not missed.
Shades of brown in the oak and maple settings of the opulent Winthorp dwelling are warm and distinctive. Other colors like Eddie Murphy's red hoodie, an extra's blue tee shirt, and the costumes worn by partygoers on a train look natural in appearance and show off this production very well. Overall, I really can't see anyone complaining about this video.
Since this disc is no different from the 2007 release, viewers are not even treated to a lossless presentation of the 5.1 surround mix (not to mention Dolby Atmos, which of course didn't even exist at the time). However, the Dolby Digital audio is more than sufficient for a movie which is primarily reliant on voices, which come through clearly and intelligibly. I was afraid of gimmicky manipulations in the dialogue where characters might be heard dominating one channel over the other, but fortunately, the center channel anchors the actors straight down the middle of your living room.
Originally released in mono, the surround remix brings life to Elmer Bernstein's score, where the sounds of Mozart are heard rousingly during the opening credits. Dynamics and bass response are modest unless pop music is played prominently in a scene, and directional sounds are likewise kept to a minimum. French and Spanish languages are available in separate mono tracks, though an English one is not provided. Like the video presentation, I detected no flaws or errors on the audio track.
Paramount delivers a decent amount of supplements for this Blu-ray, though I later found out that nothing has been added or updated for this 35th Anniversary release. The materials betray the age of the segments such as when Landis refers to the movie as being 25 years old, and introduces segments incorporated especially for the DVD release. So if current fans have seen all of them once, then they've seen them all before...
Insider Trading: The Making of Trading Places (SD 2.0) (18:29) - The cast and crew of the movie offer their memories on the production in this somewhat aimless but still entertaining featurette. Talking heads are accompanied by clips from the film along with a couple of production stills. Eddie Murphy appears only briefly in a segment which appears to be excerpted from an unidentified NBC interview. It's a shame that this "documentary" could not have been updated.
Trading Stories (SD 2.0) (7:59) - This segment features interview clips from a 1983 publicity tour in England. The footage looks remarkably clean and holds viewers' attention since the answers seem less canned and contrived.
Deleted Scene (SD 2.0) (3:09) - This segment spotlights Clarence Beek (Paul Gleason) who drugs a security guard and steals confidential marketing information. The American classic Sunset Boulevard plays on a small television screen extensively and rather pointlessly.
The Deleted Scene with Optional Commentary by Executive Producer George Folsey, Jr. (HD 2.0) (1:47) - As described, the director discusses the decision to excise Paul Gleason's footage from the theatrical edit of the movie, but restored for television broadcast.
Dressing The Part (SD 2.0) (6:31) - Costume Designer Deborah Nadoolman talks about her work on the film, with breathless praise coming from the director, who also happens to be her husband. A few excerpts and still photos are interspersed between comments from other cast members in this rather self-congratulatory featurette.
The Trade in Trading Places (SD 2.0) (5:25) - A group of financial experts explains the process of commodities trading and how it relates to the climax of the movie. (Even screenwriter Herschel Weingrod admits that a lot of people still don't understand the movie's conclusion.)
Industrial Promotion Piece (SD 2.0) (4:19) - Director Landis introduces an improvised piece between Aykroyd and Murphy for film exhibitors. This scene lasts for less than three minutes but does show a chemistry between the co-stars and again is a nice change of pace from the hackneyed promos and publicity pieces done for most modern films.
Trivia Pop-Ups - Fans of VH-1's "Pop-Up Video" may enjoy the data and factoids which appear onscreen during certain parts of the movie, but for first-time viewers, they are probably more distracting than amusing. A few of the pop-ups are fun (especially those pointing out continuity errors) and would probably best be enjoyed by those who already know every line and scene from the movie.
As much as I enjoy the movie, Trading Places doesn't hold such a valued place in my heart that makes me demand better than what this Blu-ray provides. What is warmed over and served up here is more than good enough for first-time owners like me, and it would take a considerable upgrade in picture and sound quality for me to buy this film in 4K. Modern movie buffs who are not quite sure about Eddie Murphy's legacy and popularity will want to look at this movie to see his talents at their level best, even if the remainder of the movie doesn't reach his comedic standards. This movie, along with Beverly Hills Cop, Coming to America and The Golden Child (I am one of the few true fans of this critically maligned movie), shows him at his best, and for that reason alone, is recommended if and only if you've never owned it before.