Christmas is approaching in Philadelphia, but it might not be the season of goodwill for some. Take the super-rich Duke brothers, Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer (Don Ameche), they're not feeling very charitable, they're forever planning ways to increase their already huge fortune, and Randolph has been needling away at his sibling to take part in another of his bets. Just something they like to indulge in, but in this case people can get hurt: people like Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd), one of their employees and about to find his life going to hell in a handbasket thanks to the Dukes...
As meanwhile a man whose life has already gone to hell in a handbasket has a stroke of good luck. That was the Prince and the Pauper premise to Trading Places, where one very poor fellow swaps lives with one very rich one, and the consequences are meant to tell us something about the whole nature versus nurture debate, although what most audiences took away from it was that they had just seen a major new star in the making. That star was Eddie Murphy, fresh from Saturday Night Live (he had taken over when Aykroyd and company had left) and a tough-talking hit in 48 Hrs - after this he never looked back.
Sure, he made some dubious choices, but what star does not? If you're watching, say, Norbit and wondering why you ever liked him in the first place, then take another look at Trading Places and see what a breath of fresh air he was in the comedy movie landscape (his stand-up material remains an acquired taste, mind you). Here he plays Billy Ray Valentine, initially seen as a blind, legless beggar until we find out he is only one of those things. The excellent script, by far the best thing the team of Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod ever wrote, has the division between rich and poor on its mind, with Valentine and Winthorpe the polar opposites, and taking in the racial issues and financial injustice that goes along with that.
The Dukes manufacture it so that Valentine is freed from jail after a misunderstanding with Winthorpe, and offered his job as Winthorpe is shown the door after some trumped up charges see him lose everything Valentine now has. He thinks that the former beggar is responsible and cannot understand how this could have happened, another theme being that you don't know what you've got till it's gone, and ends up taken under the wing of kindly but street smart hooker Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis impressive in the role that transformed her into a major sex symbol of her era). If both the victim and the victor realised that they were being played for fools by the powers behind the throne, then they could do something truly beneficial.
It takes them two thirds of the movie to work this out, and even then Valentine has to eavesdrop on a conversation that reveals the racist Dukes are never going to allow him to stay where he is. Funnily enough, it turns out that Randolph is right about nurture being the contributing factor to one's actions, as Valentine does indeed show a head for business once he has his chances to prove it, and Winthorpe turns to crime. But more significantly, the characters who mark themselves out as improvable are those who gain humanity, so while they start out as representations of the least wholesome members of their class, a shake up of morals provided by the plot renders them worthy of our admiration - and the admiration of each other, as they have made friends for life. Needless to say, the performers under John Landis' skillful direction are perfect - watch Aykroyd when he's in that Santa suit or anything with butler Denholm Elliott keeping his composure for fine comic acting, and Murphy in every one of his scenes, needless to say. OK, it gets silly on the train and the ending might be confusing, but Trading Places was a good show all round. Music by Elmer Bernstein.