There is long-standing theory in Hollywood that the more fun the filmmakers have making a movie, the less fun the audience will have watching it. Particularly in the case of comedies, this theory would seem to ring true -- how many times have you watched a so-called "laugh riot" that just felt out-of-control, with the actors flailing their arms all about and screaming one-liners at each other to no avail? It may have been one big party on the set, but it's nothing but headache-inducing when projected on a big screen fifty feet wide.
'Trading Places' may be the rare comedy that breaks this rule. As we learn in the newly-created supplements included in this "Looking Good, Feeling Good!" Blu-ray edition, everyone involved seemed to have a ball making this movie. For much of the shoot, the filmmakers let the cast freely improvise -- yet rather than coming off like some sort of aimless, shapeless mismatch of styles and tones, 'Trading Places' seems to have been emboldened by its on-set joviality and the spontaneousness of its approach. Add to that a sharp, socially relevant script, and a hungry young cast including Eddie Murphy, Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis, and you've got all the ingredients for a underrated minor classic.
Aykroyd is Louis Winthrope III -- a spoiled, self-righteous snob of a stock broker who thinks that he is more deserving than the world's peons. Murphy is Billy Ray Valentine, a two-bit hustler with the misfortune of bumping into Winthrope at the wrong place at the wrong time in a mistaken robbery attempt. But what a collision it ends up being, after Winthrope's wealthy bosses -- the Duke Brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) -- decide to engineer a little "nature versus nurture" social experiment, switching Louis and Billy Ray's lots in life. Suddenly, Valentine is the toast of the stock world, while Winthrope turns to petty crime and the favors of a kindly prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis) as he attempts to even the score. But when Louis and Billy Ray finally get wise to who's really behind the scheme, it may be the Dukes themselves who end on the losing end of their own cruel prank.
What's still fun about 'Trading Places' twenty years on is that it successfully manages to balance relevant social comedy with sheer, out-and-out goofiness. There are moments that are almost slapstick in their execution, yet somehow, Director John Landis ('Blues Brothers,' 'Animal House') is always able to control the chaos (albeit sometimes just barely). As a result, 'Trading Places' never veers too far off course, which is something of an accomplishment for a movie that includes everything from a drunken Akyroyd in a Santa suit (waving a gun and stuffing a poached salmon in his trousers), to a guy in a monkey suit getting humped by a real gorilla. That it also manages to slyly decimate the very underpinnings of classism in America is some kind of subversive masterstroke.
'Trading Places' is also notable for being a turning point in the careers of its three lead performers. Having not yet hit big with '48 Hrs.' when he was cast in 'Trading Places,' Murphy was best known as "that guy who plays Buckwheat" on 'Saturday Night Live,' while Aykroyd (despite a string of earlier co-starring successes with John Belushi) was surprisingly considered by some a has-been by 1983, coming off of the flop 'Doctor Detroit.' Finally there was Curtis, who Paramount didn't even want in the movie, as she was a mere scream queen that "no one thought could be funny." In hindsight, Landis' casting choices may have been some of the most prescient made by any filmmaker in Hollywood -- it's hard to imagine 'Trading Places' working with anyone else in it.
But perhaps the most striking (and somewhat sad) thing about watching 'Trading Places' today is noting just how electrifying a comic actor Murphy was at the time. I recently sat down to review the latest Murphy vehicle 'Norbit,' and was shocked at how listless and contrived his shtick has become. But in 'Trading Places,' he's commanding, vibrant, alive and alert. Best of all, he never seems to forget that the movie is ultimately an ensemble piece, and never robs either Aykroyd or Curtis of their moments -- instead, he enhances their best lines with priceless reaction shots. While the film has many positive atrributes, Murphy's performance alone makes 'Trading Places' worth the return trip.
Previously released on DVD back in 2002 as a bare-bones presentation that left most fans wanting, Paramount has finally given the movie a long overdue remaster for this this new Special Edition (which is being released concurrently on standard DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray). Given the circumstances, the results are strong. Quite frankly, 'Trading Places' is not a visually interesting film -- it has a flat, TV-movie look typical of the early '80s. Yet this transfer rights most of the wrongs of previous home video versions, and seems to make the movie look about as good as it possibly could.
This new 1.85:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 transfer offers a sizable upgrade over the old DVD. The print has really been given a clean-up -- gone is all that dirt and grain that's marred the movie for years. While the print is slightly soft, it looks natural, and thankfully, Paramount has not succumbed to the dreaded temptation to pump up edge enhancement to help "compensate." Colors, while hardly spectacular, are also improved; there is a richness and clarity to hues, particularly fleshtones which are no longer overly pink. Granted, 'Trading Places' will never be great high-def demo material, but I'm going to go out on a limb and give this presentation a four-star video rating anyway. Paramount deserves applause for making a real effort to produce a catalog remaster that delivers.
Unfortunately, Paramount does not have as much success with the 'Trading Places' soundtrack. Even a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 remaster (at 1.5mbps) can't do much with the material -- the film still sounds dated and limited.
Unsurprisingly for a 1983 film, the mix just sounds like stereo. I counted perhaps a half dozen discrete effects at best, and they are hardly effective at creating any sustained atmosphere. 'Trading Places' is also a very dialogue-heavy film, so even the sense of depth to the front channels is meager. Dynamic range is fair -- John Landis has a penchant for using classical and R&B songs on his soundtracks, which often reveal the limitations of this mix. High-end sounds a bit brittle, while there isn't much oomph to the low bass. Dialogue, generally sounds fine, if a bit hard to understand at lower volumes. In short, this one is listenable, but nothing more.
Few fans of 'Trading Places' were pleased with Paramount's previous bare bones DVD release, but the studio has finally heeded the pleas and given the film the special edition it has long deserved in this brand new concurrently released DVD, HD DVD and Blu-ray edition. Unfortunately, all the bulletpoints on the back of the box suggest something a bit more substantial than we actually get. Still, it's certainly better than nothing.
As John Landis has never been a fan of audio commentaries, we get no such track on 'Trading Places.' Instead, the centerpiece is the retrospective featurette "The Making of 'Trading Places.' This peice is as straightforward as the title is unimaginative, with the expected mix of interviews and film clips. Contributing new remembrances are Landis, screenwriters Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod, costume designer Deborah Nadoolman and stars Dan Aykroyd and Jamie Lee Curtis (note that the now publicity-shy Eddie Murphy also appears, but only by way of excerpts from an interview he gave NBC back in 2002). There are some interesting tidbits here, particularly discussion of a last-minute switch in casting (Paramount originally wanted Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder for the Murphy and Aykroyd roles), some studio concerns over the more ribald humor in the script, and of course Curtis' famous nude scene. This featurette is all too brief at only 18 minutes, but otherwise a fun watch.
Two additional featurettes are intended to add further insight, though both seem somewhat extraneous. "Dressing the Part" (8 min.) is a more in-depth chat with costune designer Deborah Nadoolman, though honestly, are the costumes of 'Trading Places' really much of an attraction? "The Trade in 'Trading Places'" (5 min.) is even more negligible, employing the help of some stock traders to explain the film's ending, which continues to confuse many with its market intricacies
Culled from the archives are three final video vignettes. "The Deleted Scene" is a 3-minute sequence with Paul Gleason's evil Clarence Beeks character, but inexplicably, the majority of the scene is spent showing TV clip from Paramount classic 'Sunset Boulevard.' Utterly skippable. "Industry Promo" is a 4-minute "mock teaser" created for the 1982 ShoWest exhibitors convention, featuring Murphy and Aykroyd. Finally, "Trading Stories" is 7 minutes of interview footage conducted for a 1983 European press conference promoting the film. Look for Aykroyd, Curtis and Murphy, the latter in a pink leather suit that I'm sure he'd rather forget.
Finally, there is a collection of "Trivia Pop-Ups." This subtitle fact track offers a mix of cast and crew biographical information, sporadic production tidbits, and some factoids about stock trading. This one's fun at times, but fairly slight and mostly extraneous -- it's too bad more energy wasn't spent fleshing out the featurettes rather than producing a fact track for a film that probably didn't need it.
Unfortunately, there is no theatrical trailer for 'Trading Places' included. Note also that none of the video-based extras are presented in 1080 resolution, -- only lowly 480i/MPEG-2 video.
'Trading Places' holds up as one of the better comedies from the early '80s. Its premise is still timely, its got a great cast, and not a scene goes by without at least a couple of big belly laughs. Paramount has finally served up a special edition of this fan favorite, and it makes for a very solid HD DVD release -- the transfer is better than expected, and even if the audio is lacking, there's a handful of new supplements to pick up the slack. Well worth a purchase for fans, and if you've never seen 'Trading Places' before, definitely give it a rent.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.