(This retrospective was part of the Pajiba staff’s April Fool’s Day joke for 2008. No, I don’t actually believe Eddie Murphy and Russian Formalism are a natural fit—I had to use a hell of a lot of grease. I also want to go on record that I’m not really a fan of the movie.)
TK’s recent 48 Hours retrospective was so belly-warming, I’ve been inspired to give the man who gave us Norbit another chance. Eddie Murphy rightfully takes a lot of flack on this site, but several readers have argued that, for all the fat suits and double-takes, Murphy once had the goods. Walking past the Comedy section at Blockbuster the other day, I decided — on a whim — to waddle down memory lane with the E-man and see if we couldn’t recapture some of the old magic he sparked in his Raw-er days. This particular shop was fresh out of 48 Hours; instead, John Landis’ Trading Places (1983) was the first Murphy classic to jump off the shelf, so I grabbed a copy and brought it home — knowing, in the interest of fairness, that I really should be sipping the sweet showers of Murphy’s stand-up recordings, but not interested enough in my own experiment to go too far out of my way.
If, like me, you haven’t seen Trading Places since your training-bra days, here’s the recap: Murphy plays Billy Ray Valentine, a Philadelphia con artist living in the streets, hassling women and getting by on what’s supposed to pass for charm. When he catches the attention of two ultra-rich geezers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), he becomes their pawn in a wager: can a petty con rise above his background given the proper environment? And can a silver-spoon schlub (Dan Aykroyd) lose his polish and turn to crime when he’s thrown in the street? With a few Machiavellian contortions, Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe loses his job, home, fiancée and good name, and Billy Ray is doused off and put in Winthorpe’s place at the commodities brokerage run by the Duke brothers. He’s guided to success by the Dukes and Winthorpe’s kindly butler (Denholm Elliott), and reveals an uncanny talent for stock prediction that’s so accurate, he becomes the company’s leading commodities authority. Meanwhile, a helpless Winthorpe avoids becoming pigeon food thanks to Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), the gold-hearted fantasy hooker with the world’s most perfect body (holy joysticks — no wonder she’s the only thing most guys my age remember about that film). The shenanigans that ensue are outfitted with all the staples: fish-out-of-water gags, snooty bluebloods vs. uncouth blue-collars, Murphy’s honking laughter, and a lineup of familiar faces in small roles, including Bo Diddley, Frank Oz, James Belushi and a very young and be-curled Al Franken (on whom a very young and be-oddballed Ranylt once crushed — shut up).
As a technical product, Trading Places is nothing to write Pajiba about. Lord, no. It’s the kind of movie you loved as a kid because (as we’ve established time and again in our comments sections) kids as a species are at best easily manipulated and at worst dumb as granite. No good can come of revisiting movies like Trading Places in your sophisticated 30s — or after you’ve seen more than 30 movies in your life, total, and can work that fabled contrast effect with the opposable brain-thumbs you’ve been handed by evolution. Murphy’s schtick is so far gone by now that it’s become comedy carrion, invoking either the wrong kind of laughter or frozen puzzlement. The story’s set-up is labored, rushed and downright insulting to viewers, as is the conclusion. And though it hurts me to dis a fellow Ottawan, Dan Aykroyd’s performance clunks harder than chain-shot — it’s so bad, I kept turning to my husband in disbelief, wondering how I ever managed to grow a warm patch in my heart for sweet, guileless Aykroyd (is it safe to re-watch Ghostbusters, or should I keep fond memories intact and never see it again?). Trading Places is an exercise in weak gags, poor timing, unhelmed acting, and pervasive stupidity. Time has not been kind to this movie, yet it maintains a horde of devoted followers to this day. How? Why? I’m like a terrier with mysteries like these; I forced myself to poke through the film’s insipid surface to spot the factor that gives Trading Places its appeal. And wouldn’t you know, buried in all that debris is a funny kind of genius that explains the film’s lingering ping on our pop-culture radar and gives it a faint, gem-like glow. This funny genius is most likely accidental, but it’s remarkable enough to invest Trading Places with more cultural resonance than it may seem, at first glance, to possess.
Since I love to salvage whatever I can even from the worst movies, allow me to explain. Back in the 15th century (as some of you edumacated bookworms will know), a French writer named Rabelais was doing his part for the Renaissance by putting out hilarious scatological “chronicles” that celebrated the earthiness of the human body rather than the sanctity of the human soul. Rabelais’ work (which was periodically banned or bowdlerized up until the last century for its frank depictions of shit, vomit, puss and sex, and for its attack on every conceivable institution) inspired Russian philosopher Mikhail Bakhtin to draw up a cultural theory he called “carnivalesque”. Bakhtin simply positioned the idea of the carnival — where bodies, ranks, and languages mix — against that of the official feast, where social rank is visibly maintained and moral values reinforced. Official feast is an expression of the everyday social pattern of hierarchies, prohibitions and etiquette, while carnival — a sporadic event — temporarily liberates people from the established rules and order. All the standard divisions between us — class, profession, age, sex, nationality, and jargons — disintegrate to allow for a momentary communication between humans that isn’t normally possible in segregated, regulated daily life.
A movie that involves the position reversal of a rich, white man who speaks conventional English with a poor, black man who utters street slang is plugging into this cultural idea, however unconsciously. Billy Ray isn’t just the carnival fool who becomes King for a Day and takes command of the commodities brokerage (run by a stand-in aristocracy in the form of two brothers suggestively named Duke). He also conforms to the perceived behavior and dress of another race and class, and alters the slang on the tip of his tongue — selecting new linguistic choices in a way that reflects Bakhtin’s concern with the lack of uniformity even within a single language. The swapping of class, in this case, is a metaphoric collapsing of rank, and Winthorpe, on his end, does his part by dressing like a pimp or a homeless man, and by transforming his posture and gestures from rigidly correct to loose and undisciplined; he lets his body detach from proper social codes — swaying, singing and pissing in the street like a Rabelais clown.
The carnivalesque in fiction isn’t just signaled by the literal representation of fairs and circuses; any gathering of a heterogeneous crowd, enlivened by celebration or disorder, is a locus for Bakhtin’s cultural phenomenon. Trading Places mirrors this theory by presenting not one but several scenes of revel or chaos: there’s the early moment when down-and-out Billy Ray runs through a gentleman’s club, mingling the lowly with the upper-crust, and creating confusion; there’s the scene when Billy, flush with cash and bolted into a designer suit, collects a hodgepodge of partiers at a local bar and brings them back to the mansion, where they’re waited on by the butler as if they were bluebloods; there’s Winthorpe, stinking with filth, rushing through the brokerage with a gun and causing his own share of mayhem; there’s the raucous New Year’s party on the train, fully carnivalesque thanks to humans costumed in the professions, genders or nationalities of others. Even the main characters swap national and linguistic identities during that party: Coleman the English butler goes Irish, Billy Ray temporarily hails from Cameron, Ophelia is Swedish — but looks Austrian — and Winthorpe blurs racial divisions with Rastafarian blackface. Whole species, in fact, mingle on this carnivalesque train — James Belushi’s gorilla costume winds up on another character who is then mistaken for an actual gorilla by baggage handlers, longshoremen, and a horny male ape (which results in a temporary communication and smashing of prohibition that’s better left unmentioned). Lastly, there’s the concluding scene on the trading floor with the wildest crowd yet — and it’s significant that, in Bakhtin, the marketplace is one of the key areas for these kinds of collapsing transactions. In Trading Places, that collapse is literally represented by the loss of the Duke fortune in a bad prospect and the rise of the economic prospects of underdogs Billy Ray, Winthorpe, Ophelia and Coleman — all of which takes place on the frantic stage of a major stock exchange, where voices mingle into a screaming babble and bodies press into a faint.
As Rabelais anticipated in his fiction, carnivalism functions most believably in the comedic genre — especially in comedies featuring fart jokes, bestial rape, prostitution, rotting food, topless women and public urination (step right up, John Landis!). The earthy reality of Rabelais’ world challenges the artificial rules, etiquettes and hierarchies embodied in Trading Places’ upper-crust characters (Winthorpe’s fiancée, Penelope, is literally pressed between the unwashed bodies of the lower classes on a bench in the police station). Bakhtin believed that the degraded realms of sex, reproduction and elimination were crucial zones of social regeneration; base fucking results in new birth, and shit fertilizes the ground. Crude images, in other words, are not cynical but life-affirming, and laughter, according to Bakhtin, “liberates the gay truth of the world.” In this context, Trading Places as a comedy of social reform, with its images of mingled ranks and its celebration of the body, reinforces old notions of fiction and society that go back 500 years. It’s amazing what the director of Animal House can pull off when he jumps into the current of cultural ideas we swim in unawares. And though it may seem like a stretch to lay Russian formalist theory over poppycock like Trading Places, that very incompatibility would be welcomed by Bakhtin, who was fascinated with the liberating possibilities of combining so-called low and high cultural forms. — Ranylt Richildis
(Originally published on Pajiba.com on April 1, 2008.)