I saw Trading Places the other day, a movie I'd seen before, but mostly in bits and pieces (it's on TV constantly, so if you're home flipping channels on a Sunday you might see the ending one week, the beginning another week). It's a funny movie that deserves its popularity; it's also perhaps the ultimate '80s movie, or at least the ultimate '80s comedy. Let's do a checklist of the ways in which this picture embodies all that is '80s in film comedy:
- Saturday Night Live alumni as stars
- Lots of semi-famous people making cameos: Jim Belushi, Al Franken, Frank Oz
- A plot dealing with corporate raiding and insider trading (the story of Mortimer and Randolph Duke is based on a couple of brothers who unsuccessfully tried to corner the market in something or other in 1980)
- A wholesome prostitute
- Lots of references to the decadent lifestyles of the rich, from huge mansions to butlers to country clubs. At a time when the rich in America were starting to live more and more like they were in denial about being rich (it was at this time that we saw the annoying phenomenon of rich people who like to pretend that they're still ordinary computer nerds), the movies were increasingly fixated on the Scrooge McDuck lifestyle.
- The rich are portrayed as evil, heartless, and cruel. The Dan Aykroyd character learns virtue and compassion by living on the street for a few days. But...
- At the end, all the good guys become rich and all the bad guys wind up poor. This was the big thing in the endings of '80s movies. As opposed to the '70s, when most movies ended with everyone being miserable, or the '40s, when characters were more likely to end up poor but happy. In a true '80s movie, nobody winds up poor or miserable.
- The Ralph Bellamy character has a photo of President Reagan on his desk. This was a prop used in countless '80s movies and TV shows to demonstrate that a character was evil, greedy, heartless, etc.
- Swearing and nudity are included in such a way as to be totally irrelevant, so that they can be easily removed for the "clean" TV version. There were a lot of '80s movies that were basically "clean" movies but included one or two things to get them an R rating and therefore seem edgy. (This even happened in kids' movies; E.T. had the phrase "penis breath" in it solely so it would get a PG rather than G rating.) This doesn't happen as much nowadays, partly because of the institution of the PG-13 rating and partly because dressing up conventional material with a few "naughty bits" is now mostly the province of cable TV shows.
- Like many '80s movies, Trading Places is a "loose and baggy monster," rambling, unstructured. It basically abandons its main plot about two-thirds of the way through, and devotes itself instead to a favorite '80s trope: the good guys team up to teach the bad guys a lesson. The fact that this doesn't have much to do with what the movie was supposed to be about is not supposed to be important. And I suppose it really isn't.
The fun of a good '80s comedy is the looseness, and the amount of room it has for schtick by the performers. If the performers are sufficiently talented, and Eddie Murphy and even Dan Aykroyd certainly were at this time, it's good to see them given an opportunity to do all their routines, including dressing up, doing funny accents, and laughing very loudly. One of the reasons movie comedy was so dismal in the '70s -- and for all the Golden Age talk, the '70s was not a good time for film comedy -- was that the director-oriented, serious-minded New American Cinema couldn't get its film-schooled head around the idea of getting a performer in and turning him loose. Say what you will about John Landis, he could do that, and, in his brief period of in-demandedness, that's just what he did.
"I am Nanja Iboko, exchange student from Cameroon!"