Comedy is, of course, subjective, but sometimes it's hard not to feel like the world got it wrong. Every once in awhile, justice is served over time: in 2005, it seemed like audiences favored the mediocre stylings of Wedding Crashers over Judd Apatow's The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Cut to the year 2010, however, and Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson are starring in dreck, David Dobkin is nowhere to be found, and Apatow (a few dings on his producing resume aside), is probably the most prominent comedic voice of the aughts. To this hall of accidental injustice, with the hope that the world may fix their long-standing oversight, I add the case of John Landis' Coming to America vs. his earlier film Trading Places.
As the director of The Blues Brothers, Landis has carved out a permanent berth in my personal comedy fandom, and I still think Eddie Murphy's a talented, funny comedian when he has the right material, who deserves more Bowfingers than Norbits. Both have an Achilles heel; a favored technique they're capable of making work, but can easily become disastrous: Landis has a love for expensive, drawn-out spectacle (as well as goofy side gags), whereas Murphy's desire to climb in the makeup chair and play as many people as possible has come to define him. Many people hold Coming to America up one of Murphy's classics, but I strongly disagree: it's a waste of time with a handful of good gags that allows both men to indulge their worst tendencies. Between its completely disjointed plot and horrible pacing, Coming to America has nothing on the breezy, loose-limbed Trading Places.
In a simple, obvious riff on The Prince and the Pauper, two egotistical, corrupt brothers named Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) decide to take their prized stock analyst Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), and disgrace him by framing him for drug charges, stripping him of his money, getting his fiance to dump him, and leaving him on the street. At the same time, they'll pluck a bum off the street, like the recently-arrested Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), give him all of Louis' stuff, and place him in Louis's job. To them, it's a social experiment: will the refined and regal Louis turn to petty crime to survive, and will a fast-talking con man like Billy Ray legitimately pick up the stock business?
First and foremost, Trading Places is a performance piece. Anyone who says Trading Places' story is paper-thin is right, but that's beside the point. Aykroyd's Louis starts out as an unlikable caricature of high society, but once he's been tossed out on his ear, Louis' insistent innocence slowly turns from grating to funny until Louis is stuffing entire salmon into the worst Santa outfit that's ever existed (it looks like it was unwashed before it was even manufactured). Aykroyd is paired up with Jamie Lee Curtis, elevating her painfully cliche "hooker with a heart of gold" role far beyond its intended limits with little more than her knowing smile. Meanwhile, the film allows ample opportunity for Murphy to play subtle and low-key. Not only is he excellent with quieter material when given the chance, it makes his break-out, big-grin moments funnier (Murphy's completely dead-pan fourth-wall break while the Dukes explain stocks is the movie's biggest laugh).
And yet, those are just the "star" performances. On top of the leads, there's also Bellamy and Ameche, who walk the tightrope between smarmy and charming. Cartoonish enough to tolerate yet malicious enough to loathe, their performance is key to the movie's success, because it makes their comeuppance -- a stock market finale no more or less entertaining than Wall Street's -- that much sweeter. There's also Paul Gleason as an amusingly dour inside man, and Denholm Elliott, as Winthorpe's butler Coleman, lightening the mood of every scene he appears in. Jim Belushi, Al Franken, Stephen Stucker and Frank Oz also drop in for bit roles.
At the helm, Landis allows for more than a handful of broad moments that don't work as well as they should, and there are a couple of "faggot" jokes from Murphy that have not exactly aged like a fine wine, but Trading Places holds up. Hell, it even seems vaguely relevant, thanks to the montage of lower-class people struggling to make ends meet that makes up half the opening credits. It's a focused, well-performed, modestly scaled comedy that remains consistently funny...a far cry from the mushy, drawn out indulgence of Coming to America. Give 'em both a spin and consider which one's really the better movie...I'll even stake a dollar on it.
It's Christmas, and commerce is in the air. What better time to slap a lenticular slipcover on an existing release and call it a day? That's what you're getting if you pony up for this version of Trading Places: the "Looking Good, Feeling Good" Edition -- cover art intact! -- with a lenticular cardboard slipcover over it that alters the artwork to look more "of the season", popping Aykroyd (in Santa garb) and Murphy inside a snow globe, and changing the color scheme to blue, white, and red. Oh, well. I suppose it's better than Paramount's decision to use the old, extra-less disc for their "I Love the '80s" line.
The Video and Audio
Paramount's 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation is solid. Colors seem a tiny bit muted compared to other Paramount "Special Collector's Edition" DVDs of films from the same era (not sure Trading Places warranted a full restoration in the studio's eyes), but the print is clean and free of damage, and detail is pretty strong.
The mixing on the film's Dolby Digital 5.1 track seems to favor the music over the dialogue, which blasts over the movie's opening title sequence yet gives way to relatively quiet dialogue. A sampling of the 2.0 track over the same segment had the dialogue mixed just a touch louder, but the difference is negligible. In any case, the 5.1 track is perfectly adequate, even if the perfect volume level is slightly elusive. The disc also contains French, Spanish, and Portuguese audio in 2.0, as well as English, French and Spanish subtitles.
There was a streak in 2008 when Paramount was cranking out some of the best value-priced catalog special editions ever, packed with great vintage material that I'd never have guessed would see the light of day. Trading Places is no different. Since this is not a new disc, I'm going to decline to write them up myself, but you can check out Randy Miller III's review here, whose sentiments I absolutely agree with.
Trailers for Dreamgirls, Norbit, and other Paramount/Eddie Murphy films play before the menu. Sadly, no original theatrical trailer for Trading Places is included.
It's pretty simple: if you don't own Trading Places, you should. If you own the older, extras-less edition of Trading Places, this is a worthy upgrade that can probably be had for about $8. If you own the "Looking Good, Feeling Good" Edition on DVD or Blu-Ray, you've already got this disc. For first-timers or upgraders, this is a highly recommended package.
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