Trading Places, 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, 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, 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. How does it end? Winthorpe and Valentine take the Dukes for everything they have via a short-selling scheme, then live Happily Ever After on an island with Coleman and Ophelia.The movie did well at the box office ($90 million gross in 1983) 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:
Actor Allusion: When Louis is arrested, one of the cops individually inspects each of his possessions, states what it is aloud, and then places it in a cardboard box. The cop is played by Frank Oz, who did the exact opposite (taking items out of the box and returning them to the protagonist) in The Blues Brothers.
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.
Hidden Depths: Valentine surprises the Dukes with how easily he took to understanding the business, despite through 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 wind 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.
Perhaps lampshaded when as the dejected Dukes realize how far they've fallen and they watch the triumphant Winthorpe and Valentine laughing at them, Mortimer asks Valentine "After everything we've done for you?"
Louis: 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 Upper Class Wits 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.
Likewise Paul Gleason, who played Clarence Beeks. He could make Eddie Murphy and Dan Akroyd laugh.
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. Swings back to light-hearted when he is revived and we realize the pitiful extent of the suicide attempt.
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.
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.
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.
Riches To Rags: Happens to Louis at the beginning, and to Randolph and Mortimer at the end.
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.
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, when the Hunt brothers of Texas tried to corner the silver market and failed to meet a $394 million margin call.
Shown Their Work: The short-selling scheme was perfectly sound and perfectly legal at the time and commodities markets do not have the same laws against "insider trading" that stock exchanges do.
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.
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. Quite against Mortimer's predictions, Billy Ray proves just as adept at being a commodities broker as Winthorpe, if not more. 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.
Fridge Logic: Billy Ray is as good as he is at being a commodities broker because there's so little difference between that and what he was doing before - it's all hustling and running cons.
Mortimer: Tell him the good part.
Randolph: The good part, William, is that no matter whether our clients make money or lose money, Duke & Duke get the commissions.
Mortimer (condescendingly): Well, what do you think, Valentine?
Billy Ray: Sounds to me like you guys are a couple of bookies!
Throw It In: When Randolph tosses Mortimer's money clip back, Don Ameche bounces it back and forth a couple of times before catching it.
Time Marches On: 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 law that changed this is even informally known as the "Eddie Murphy Rule", though it may have had more to do with the real-life events that inspired the end of the film (see Ripped from the Headlines).
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 either 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.
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 (they don't have it yet, but commit to buying it later) at the inflated price.
To elaborate: Short selling involves a seller borrowing shares from a lender and selling them at the current market price, with a commitment to rebuy the stock later and return it to the lender. If the stock goes down, the seller makes a profit.
When the crop report becomes public, the price plummets. Winthorpe and Valentine fulfill their buy-later commitments at increasingly rock-bottom prices, which locks in huge profits for both men.
The Dukes, having committed to buy a lot of frozen OJ at an outrageously high price, desperately try to unload before their huge loss gets any worse, but their trader faints before getting very far. The New York Mercantile Exchange officials demand payment from the Dukes, but since they don't have enough capital, they end up bankrupted.
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!"