, a critically-acclaimed 1983 comedy
film directed by John Landis
, stars Dan Aykroyd
, Eddie Murphy
and Jamie Lee Curtis
Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd), a privileged commodities broker, has a nearly-perfect life: he lives in a big house owned by his rich employers, has a beautiful rich fiancée, and exclusive country club memberships. During the opening minutes of the film, Winthorpe runs afoul of supposedly homeless con man
Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), and an unfortunate mixup gets Valentine arrested for trying to steal Winthorpe's briefcase.
Winthorpe's bosses, financial tycoons Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), debate "nature vs. nurture" after witnessing Valentine's arrest. Mortimer believes good breeding makes a man a success, no matter how much opportunity the world provides to him, while Randolph believes a rich man will deteriorate and a poor man will succeed if placed in the right environment. The Dukes decide to run a social experiment by ruining a rich man's life, putting a poor man in the rich man's place, and seeing what happens. Winthorpe and Valentine become the Dukes' "test subjects", and the brothers make a bet on the outcome for "the usual amount".
The Dukes frame Winthorpe for possession of drugs and use a hooker named Ophelia (Curtis) to further humiliate him in front of his fiancée; Winthorpe loses his job, his house, and his fiancée in short order, and he ends up living with Ophelia, who takes pity on him
. After ruining Winthorpe's life, the Dukes arrange for Valentine's release from jail, then give him Winthorpe's job and house. Randolph's prediction comes true: Winthorpe's life spirals out of control while Valentine becomes a success (even though he gains some of the same attitudes against the poor Winthorpe held).
Valentine eventually finds out about the experiment as well as the brothers' plans to undo all the success he's been having just for their own amusement, then befriends Winthorpe in order to turn the tables on the Dukes. The duo plans an appropriate revenge involving a frozen-concentrated-orange-juice crop report, a train to New York, a commodities exchange floor, and the help of Ophelia and Winthorpe/Valentine's butler, Coleman.
The movie did well at the box office ($90 million gross in 1983, $233 million adjusted gross) and with critics (89% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes
), who deemed it an entertaining and intriguing social satire (thanks chiefly to the stellar cast and the well-written script).
This movie provides examples of the following tropes:
- All Just a Dream: Winthorpe, at first. Then he sees Valentine and goes for the throat.
- Angry Black Man: Billy Ray to a certain extent.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking:
- Winthorpe's descent into criminality is summarized as "pilfering in our club, embezzling funds, selling drugs, and now he's dressing up like Santa Claus."
- Also, when Valentine gets Winthorpe's job, exiles him from his house, and basically takes over his life, Winthorpe seems most upset by Valentine wearing Winthorpe's Harvard tie.
- Artistic License – Cars: Coleman starts Winthorpe's Mercedes 600 Grosser and immediately drives it away. The 600 has a complex hydraulic system that operates everything from the windows and seats to the suspension. It would have to idle for some time to build up sufficient hydraulic pressure.
- Artistic License – Economics: Subverted with the ending. Modern viewers might come away with the impression that it could never happen in real life (because it's obvious insider trading), but at the time time, it was legal in commodities markets, and this film was part of what got it banned. Other changes in the nature of the stock market that would keep it from working today are a result of Technology Marches On.
- Artistic License – Geography: Washington Union Station is depicted as having level platforms. It didn't in 1983, but level platforms were installed in 1988.
- Aside Glance: It's a John Landis film, so this is to be expected. Billy Ray does it twice.
- Bad Santa: Winthorpe as Drunken Santa With A Gun.
- Badass Boast: Billy Ray in prison. It nearly ends in tears.
"A karate man bruises on the inside! They don't show their weakness. But you don't know that because you're a big Barry White looking motherfucker! So get outta my face!"
- Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: This is how Billy Ray finds out what the Duke boys were really up to.
- Batman Gambit: Winthorpe and Valentine give the Dukes a fake crop report, expecting that they'll use it to try to get an advantage on the commodities market. They plan their own investment scheme based on the real crop report and their predictions of how the Dukes will act on the fake one. By the end of the day, Winthorpe and Valentine have made a fortune and the Dukes are out $394 million.
- The Bet: Also drives the plot, for the mere sum of one dollar (as it was less about the money than pride — also, the Duke brothers are just that stingy). Winthorpe and Valentine give it a mocking Ironic Echo at the end of the film.
- Beat Them at Their Own Game: Winthorpe and Valentine try this against the Dukes and succeed on a massive scale. Humorously, Winthorpe's first plan sounds like it's going to entail this, as he says "if that's the way they want it", but then he brings out his shotgun immediately afterwards and has to be calmed down.
- Big Bad Duumvirate: The Duke Brothers.
- Black Comedy Rape: It's heavily implied that this is what happens to Beeks, by a gorilla.
- Blackface: Done very badly for Louis's disguise on the train.
- Break the Haughty: What happens to Winthorpe and the Dukes.
- The Cameo:
- Music legend Bo Diddley plays the pawnbroker.
- Al Franken and Tom Davis of Saturday Night Live fame play the Amtrak baggage handlers. Stephen Stucker, the goofy guy from Airplane ("Rapunzel, Rapunzel!") is their supervisor.
- Jamie Lee Curtis's sister Kelly is Penelope's friend Muffy.
- James Belushi is the guy in (and later out of) the gorilla costume on the train.
- Chekhov's Gun:
- Winthorpe gives a little spiel to Penelope in the beginning about how he can't come to her party on Jan. 2 because that's the day the Secretary of Agriculture releases the crop report.
- The Dukes use orange juice as an example when they begin teaching Valentine about the commodities markets.
- The joint that Valentine pockets after Winthorp tries to plant a bunch of drugs in his desk. Ultimately, that's the reason Valentine discovers the Dukes' master plan.
- Comically Serious: Beeks in some situations.
Beeks: And no more goddamn jerky beef.
- Curse Cut Short: Self-censored variety from Valentine every few minutes after he's hired by the Dukes, in an effort to seem more classy.
- Deadpan Snarker: Denholm Elliott as Coleman the butler.
- Death Cry Echo: At the end of the climactic market scene.
- Dirty Cop: Played by Frank Oz, this is part of the scheme to ruin Winthorpe's life.
- Double Aesop: A triple one:
- Winthorpe: Learns his preconceived notions about the lower class (Billy Ray and Ophelia) were wrong and misguided.
- Billy Ray: That when you feel like you've worked hard for what you've got, it's a lot easier to care about what happens to it.
- Mortimer: Learns that Randolph was right about people being able to overcome their lot in life. However, the lesson doesn't get any further than that and he's both still a miser and a racist.
- Double Meaning Title: It's about two people who trade places. It's also about the commodities market.
- The Dragon: Clarence Beeks.
- Driven to Suicide: Winthorpe makes two back-to-back suicide attempts when he thinks his life is ruined beyond repair. The first fails due to the gun jamming, and he's saved from the second attempt of trying to OD on pills.
- Easily Forgiven: While he was admittedly Just Following Orders, Winthorpe seems to hold nothing against his butler Coleman for his involvement in the Dukes' scheme that completely destroyed his life and caused him near suicide-inducing hell for the past couple of days. It probably helps that Coleman was disgusted by it.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Although Beeks would disagree.
- Exact Eavesdropping: Valentine hears the Dukes' sinister deal and all the important details.
- Fanservice: Ophelia's topless scenes. Ophelia's Swedish lederhosen outfit. Ophelia's...
- Fanservice Extra: The topless girls at Billy Ray's party.
- Faux Affably Evil: The Dukes. Randolph seems Affably Evil, but he's just playing a part. In spite of his argument that Valentine could be just as productive a member of society as Winthorpe if given the chance, he ultimately reveals that he's just as racist as his brother and fully intends to kick Valentine to the curb when their experiment is over.
- Fauxreigner: Half of the gang's disguises on the train, complete with the wrong accent and costume from Ophelia. Justified as there was a New Year's Eve costume party going on in another car on the train.
- Fingertip Drug Analysis: Performed by the cops looking over Winthorpe. However, since it was a scam and they knew it was fake, it's possible it was all for show.
- Foreshadowing: The Dukes' main trader mentions anxiety problems, which later kick in during the final plan, preventing him from stopping it.
- From Bad to Worse: Winthorpe's life has been ruined, his suicide attempt backfires, and he finds out it's all been for a bet. Then he finds out the bet was only one dollar. His revenge for that is sweet.
- Get Out: Valentine to the freeloaders in his new house, complete with a Precision F-Strike in the non-TV version
- Hidden Depths: Valentine surprises the Dukes with how easily he took to understanding the business, despite his unconventional methods. They still plan on getting rid of him after the bet, though.
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Nearly everything the Dukes come up with winds up being used to bring them down, from the two men whose lives they decide to mess with to their own 'foolproof' plan to corner the market. Even the prostitute they get to assist the plan winds up working against them. If you look at how they train Valentine to be a successful broker, and likely trained Winthrope when he was younger, you could say they literally trained the gentlemen who destroyed them.
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Ophelia to a T.
- Hourglass Plot: Drives the whole movie.
- Humiliation Conga: How the Dukes ruin Winthorpe's reputation and entire life. You can't help but feel sorry for the guy.
- Hypocrite: Randolph Duke ultimately shows himself to be this during his conversation with Mortimer in the men's room. Despite him supposedly being a proponent of "nurture over nature", he turns out to be just as racist as his brother, and plans on taking everything from Valentine after their experiment is over.
- Hypocritical Humour: "The Heritage Club — With liberty and justice for all — Members only"
- Irish Priest: Coleman's disguise on the train.
- Intercontinuity Crossover: In Coming to America, which came out five years later, Eddie Murphy's character Prince Akeem gives money to two bums on the street. Those bums are the Duke brothers, who fail to notice Akeem's resemblance to Valentine, but are really happy about the loads of cash they just got.
- Mortimer. Randolph is a pretty nasty piece of work too, but can at least better hide it within a docile, affable front. It's implied both of the brothers aren't well-liked, since the NYSE gleefully sells their seats. Coleman, after receiving orders to change the locks and bar Winthorpe from the house, ruefully refers to them as "scumbags."
- Winthorpe wasn't particularly nice to begin with either. He gets better.
- Clarence Beeks wears his asshole-ness on his sleeve at all times.
- Karmic Rape: The fate of Clarence Beeks.
- Karmic Transformation: Winthorpe and the Dukes.
- Kick the Dog: Nearly everything the Duke brothers do and every word that comes out of their mouths. Seriously. Then there's Beeks, who physically harasses random passers-by.
- Large Ham: Winthorpe, constantly.
- Laser-Guided Karma:
- Let's face it, the Dukes really had it coming.
- Winthorpe got a man arrested for giving him his briefcase back (although to be fair, Winthorpe honestly thought he was being attacked). He's spoiled, proud, uppity, racist (see his first encounter with Billy Ray), and doesn't know anything but a lavish, carefree lifestyle. His life was ruined easily just because the Dukes saw him as an easy target.
- Last-Second Word Swap: Billy Ray when describing his thoughts on why they should let prices drop a bit more.
Billy Ray: Which means that the people who own the pork belly contracts are saying, "Hey, we're losing all our damn money, and Christmas is around the corner, and I ain't gonna have no money to buy my son the G.I. Joe with the kung-fu grip! And my wife ain't gonna f... my wife ain't gonna make love to me if I got no money!"
- Lyrical Dissonance: Listen to the lovely a capella song that the Gentleman Snarkers perform for Penelope and the other girls in the scene where Louis tries to borrow money. The song's about how all the girls are complete sluts.
- The Mistress: It's a bit part, but the hot blonde who whispers into Valentine's ear at a fancy dinner is billed as "President's Mistress".
- Mood Whiplash: While mostly a slapstick comedy, Winthorpe's descent into bankruptcy and depression comes off as poignant, and strikes hard when he attempts suicide by overdose. Swings back to light-hearted when it cuts to reveal a Bungled Suicide. A short face off with Beeks aside, the rest of the film is a comedic revenge scenario.
- Ms. Fanservice:
- Jamie Lee Curtis in lederhosen and topless!
- Winthorpe's fiancé ain't too shabby either when she strips down.
- Several women at Billy Ray's first party take their shirts off.
- Murder Is the Best Solution: Or extreme violence, anyway; upon learning of the plan to ruin his life, Winthorpe initially decides that the most appropriate course of action is to kneecap both of the Duke brothers with a shotgun, before Valentine and the others suggest a more creative way of getting back at them.
- Nature Versus Nurture: The entire plot begins when the Duke brothers place a bet on which is true. The film arguably deconstructs the whole idea, as Winthorpe is not as good and Valentine not as bad as their backgrounds might suggest.
- Never Heard That One Before: Ophelia knows very well she shares the name of Hamelet's girlfriend and her tragic fate.
- New Year Has Come: The story takes place during the run-up to Christmas, and ends on the day of trading the crop report is officially released, January 2. Except for the Tropical Epilogue.
- Nice to the Waiter: The Duke Brothers don't treat their hired help well, offering only $5 bonuses during the holidays. Louis himself doesn't treat hired help, except Coleman, particularly well, until after having lost his wealth. After arriving with Billy Ray at the World Trade Center, he explicitly tells their taxi to keep his change upon paying him.
- Noodle Incident: The dialogue of the Dukes when they talk about ruining Winthorpe suggests it's not the first time they're doing this.
- Norse By Norse West / Yodel Land: Ophelia's costume when portraying "Inga from Sveden."
- Obfuscating Disability: Billy Ray starts out as this, pretending to be a paraplegic and blind Vietnam veteran to enhance his begging revenue.
- Oh, Crap: As Louis and Billy Ray put their plan in motion:
Mortimer: That's not right. How can the price be going down?
(Mortimer sees Louis and Billy Ray in the trading pit)
Mortimer: What are they doing here?
Randolph: They're selling, Mortimer!
Mortimer: Well, that's ridiculous! Unless that crop report...
Randolph: God help us!
- Paper-Thin Disguise: No one seems to notice that Beeks is wearing an obviously fake gorilla costume.
- Arguably justified by the implications that most of the people who see him are drunk or high.
- Subverted with the good guys in the train car with Beeks. Their disguises are so pitiful and Beeks already knows what they all look like — especially Winthorpe and Ophelia — from prior encounters, so he figures them out almost immediately.
- Phony Veteran: Billy Ray's con scheme at the beginning of the movie.
- Politically Incorrect Villain: The Duke brothers:
Do you really believe I would let a nigger run our family business
, Randolph? Randolph:
Of course not. I wouldn't either
Mortimer Duke: Of course there's something wrong with him. He's a negro. Probably been stealing since he could crawl.
- Precision F-Strike:
- Preppy Name: Louis Winthorpe III, Penelope Witherspoon, and their country club friends.
- Pretty in Mink: Ophelia wears a fur jacket.
- Prince and Pauper: Winthorpe and Valentine respectively, until they switch roles.
- Punctuated Pounding: Well, punctuated strangling, but Louis pulls this on Valentine. "It! Was! The! Dukes! It! Was! The! Dukes!"
- Pygmalion Plot: Half of the Dukes' bet, this is the transformation they put Billy Ray through to make him an upper class gentleman. They have a Pygmalion Snapback planned as soon as they're done with him, though.
- Rags to Riches:
- Billy Ray was hustling change on the streets and Ophelia was a hooker. Not by the film's end.
- To really bring the point home, it looks like Coleman is still the butler taking orders from Winthorpe; until he turns to his own butler and places the order.
- Riches to Rags: Happens to Louis at the beginning, and to Randolph and Mortimer at the end.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The Dukes' attempt at cornering the frozen concentrated orange juice market was inspired by the "Silver Thursday" crash of March 27, 1980.note
- Salt and Pepper: Winthorpe and Valentine.
- The working title was even "Black and White".
- Say My Name: "CLARENCE BEEKS?!", simultaneously by Winthorpe and Valentine when they see him on a news report and piece it all together.
- Scary Black Man: "Big Black Guy" and "Even Bigger Black Guy." They're less scary after getting drunk at his house party.
- The Scrooge: The billionaire Dukes hand out $5 Christmas bonuses, and ruin an employee's life for a one dollar bet.
- Servile Snarker: Coleman.
- Sexy Scandinavian: Ophelia disguises herself as this. But doesn't realize lederhosen is Austrian.
- Shotguns Are Just Better: Winthorpe believes this for his Roaring Rampage of Revenge. The clear-headed Valentine reminds him he'll go to jail for years for attempted murder alone, and that there's a better way of getting back at the Dukes.
- Shown Their Work / Time Marches On:
- At the time the film was made, using misappropriated or "insider" information to invest in commodities (as opposed to the stock and bond market) was not a crime, although a government courier could still get in trouble for unauthorized release of government information like the crop report in the film. The law that changed this, Section 136 of the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act, note enacted in 2010, is informally known as the "Eddie Murphy Rule." The chairman of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission specifically referred to the film when first publicly proposing the rule change.
- In addition, with the advent of more sophisticated computerization, modern commodities markets have "breakers" that prevent prices from changing as rapidly as depicted in the film, precisely to avoid the sort of mess the Dukes tried to cause and profit from, as well as the kind of mess they ended up getting themselves into. These limits were added a few years after the film was made.
- The Planet Money podcast on NPR released an episode in July 2013 called "The Eddie Murphy Rule," which serves as an in-depth explanation just how the scheme is supposed to work, what made it legal, and how such a scheme could no longer work today, including the enactment of the Eddie Murphy rule.
- Signature Style: John Landis always sticks "See You Next Wednesday" somewhere in his movies. In this film, it's on a movie poster in Ophelia's apartment.
- Spanner in the Works: Ophelia's unexpected kindness to Louis helped him change his ways and helped in the Laser-Guided Karma Louis would give back to the Dukes.
- Spoiled Brat: Louis, most of his school friends, and his fiancé. Louis gets better, though.
- Stereotype Flip: While most of the wealthy main characters are good caricatures of rich, blase, arrogant rich people, Billy Ray and Ophelia prove to be more than just a street hustler and hooker, respectively. Quite against Mortimer's predictions, Billy Ray proves just as adept at being a commodities broker as Winthorpe. Ophelia makes no bones about being a hooker, but she's remarkably bright and business savvy for one, going so far as to have a retirement plan from her life on the street.
- Suspiciously Apropos Music: Doubles as a Genius Bonus. The film opens with the overture to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, an opera about a servant who gives his master a comeuppance. And in one scene Louis whistles Figaro's aria Se Vuol Ballare.
- Tap on the Head: From an angry gorilla, nonetheless.* That Was Not A Dream: Winthorpe nearly strangles Billy Ray after this trope kicks in.
- This Bed of Rose's: Winthorpe ends up on one of these.
- Those Two Bad Guys: The credits refer to the two characters Valentine runs into while in a jail cell as Big Black Guy and Even Bigger Black Guy.
- Trailers Always Spoil: The cover makes it pretty clear that eventually Winthorpe gets back on his feet and works with Valentine.
- Tropical Epilogue: Using the money invested by Coleman and Ophelia to fund their side of the plan, Billy Ray, Coleman, Ophelia, and Louis become so rich they are spending a lazy day on some tropical beach ordering lobster and cracked crab for everyone as a lunch.
- Uncle Tom Foolery: The movie subtly deconstructs this character dynamic.
- Unflinching Walk: Winthorpe and Valentine walk slowly and confidently to the trading floor after the harried brokers race to it.
- Urine Trouble: A dog lifts his leg on a drunken Winthorpe in his Santa suit.
- Viewers Are Geniuses: The movie does not give a long-winded explanation as to how the ending scheme at the Commodities Exchange works, trusting that the audience could follow what happens, or at least figure out that things are going well for the heroes. The scheme works like this:
- The Dukes receive an advance copy of a crop report predicting rising prices for frozen orange juice; they commit to buying large quantities of frozen OJ before the report becomes public. Other traders notice their big push and follow their lead, which causes the price of frozen OJ to rise. The buyers are comfortable with the higher price as they believe per the Dukes' moves that the crop reports will raise the price further.
- Winthorpe and Valentine — who saw the real crop report and gave the Dukes a fake — know the price of frozen OJ will go down when the crop report hits. When the price rises high enough, they begin short-selling at the inflated price, essentially betting that the price will go down, as they will later need to buy the frozen OJ that they short-sold.
- When the crop report becomes public, the price plummets. Winthorpe and Valentine complete their short-sell commitment, buying when the price reaches rock-bottom, locking in huge profits for both men.
- The Dukes, having committed to buy a lot of frozen OJ at what turned out to be the highest prices of the day, desperately try to unload before their huge loss gets any worse, but their trader faints before getting very far. To make it worse, they bought the frozen OJ on margin, meaning they bought more frozen OJ than they could afford on the condition that they're forced to sell ("margin call") if their real money can't cover the current losses. The margin call occurs, the New York Mercantile Exchange officials demand payment from the Dukes, and since they don't have enough capital, they end up bankrupted.
- Villainous Breakdown: Randolph has a heart-attack and Mortimer loses his mind (with a bonus Precision F-Strike) after Winthorpe and Valentine bankrupt them.
- Wham Line: "Do you really believe I would let a nigger run our family business, Randolph?" cements the idea that both of the Duke Brothers want nothing to do with Valentine after the experiment (and makes Valentine aware of this fact). After this line, the plot changes from "let's watch this hilarious swapping of lifestyles" to "let's watch them take those miserable SOBs down!" The fact that both brothers also now consider Winthorpe damaged goods sets up the final team-up between him and Valentine.