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 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:
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.
All Just a Dream: Winthorpe, at first. Then he sees Valentine and goes for the throat.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jerkass: Mortimer. Randolph is a pretty nasty piece of work too, but can at least better hide it within a docile, affable front.
Winthorpe wasn't particularly nice to begin with either.
Clarence Beeks wears his asshole-ness on his sleeve at all times.
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 got a man arrested for giving him his briefcase back. 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!"
Billy Ray:(on phone) Security? (Winthorpe pulls a gun on him) Billy Ray:(higher pitch) Merry Christmas! (hangs up)
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.
Winthorpe's fiancé ain't too shabby either when she strips down.
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.
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.
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.
Mortimer: Do you really believe I would let a nigger run our family business, Randolph? Randolph: Of course not. I wouldn't either. note This completely contradicts the portrayal of Randolph being "pro-nurture".
Mortimer Duke: Of course there's something wrong with him. He's a negro. Probably been stealing since he could crawl.
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.
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, when the Hunt brothers of Texas tried to corner the silver market and failed to meet a $394 million margin call.
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 also called the Dodd-Frank Act 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.
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. 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.
Unflinching Walk: Winthorpe and Valentine walk slowly and confidently to the trading floor after the harried brokers race to it.
Unintentional Period Piece: The shots of the World Trade Center (including a ground-perspective shot of how tall the towers were) cast a bit of a shadow on an otherwise fresh, entertaining comedy.
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 rise 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 committment, 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.
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.