A staple of American comedy since the 1970s has been the “Saturday Night Live” film where cast members from the famed sketch comedy show hit the big screen with varying success levels. The early cast members had two names involved: Ivan Reitman, who generally stayed with Bill Murray movies, and John Landis. Landis directed “Animal House” and made John Belushi the hottest star at the time. He directed “The Blues Brothers” with Belushi and Dan Aykroyd (who was supposed to be in “Animal House with Chevy Chase” but that’s another story). Animal House was the biggest moneymaking comedy on a scant budget, and Jake and Elmore had nine times the budget but drew half the box office.
“Trading Places” had a more careful budget, but great star power and a classic story of the wealthy and poor switching places, with a sort of Greek chorus of elders played by Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy to move the plot along.
Aykroyd is the protagonist and plays it with aplomb. It’s probably the best performance he’s ever given. He plays preppy and it works. When everyone turns on him, he really falls apart, in a good way. Most comic actors refuse to look unattractive, but it’s great to see Aykroyd play the drama for more than a laugh, but to really enhance the character arc.
Eddie Murphy has a shorter arc, but a strong one. He’s a street hustler who learns how stocks work the way street gambling works. He doesn’t get the “rich” attitude as well as Aykroyd’s does the reverse, but it works. Murphy provides most of the laughs in the comedy. His lesson learned that buying friends who like you for your money doesn’t make you as happy as you thought is well played.
Once the two characters collide and figure out the ruse, the story takes a tumble. The third act train ride is a train wreck, giving everyone an excuse to dress up and overact for yucks. But the finale on the stock exchange floor is a classic right out of a 1940’s film. All the good guys are rewarded, and the bad guys are ruined.
The glue holding it together is Jamie Lee Curtis, who saves Aykroyd when he’s down, funds the boys on their last chance to foil the bad guys and is one of the most likable people onscreen. That she’s shuffled off in the third act to share a drink while the final action takes place is an absolute crime.
We know where this film is going from the first reel, but it is the movie where the “Saturday Night Live” cast grows up. Instead of rampant craziness, this gives us classic Hollywood comedy. “Trading Places” gave Hollywood the confidence to launch “Ghostbusters” and “Beverly Hills Cop”.
I love the scene on the floor of the stock exchange. Just watch the extras. So many did special things during the trade and it’s worth multiple viewings, especially for the “Five five” guy.