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Trading Places and Coming to America (A Movie Review)

Updated: Jun 1, 2023

Trading Places – 35th Anniversary Edition


Starring Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Jamie Lee Curtis, Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche, Denholm Elliott, Paul Gleason, Kristin Holby, James Belushi, Al Franken, Bo Diddley, Frank Oz, Tom Davis, Giancarlo Esposito, Nicholas Guest, Charles Brown, Bill Cobbs, Philip Bosco, Alfred Drake, Kelly Curtis, Barry Dennen, Arleen Sorkin and John Landis.

Screenplay by Timothy Harris & Herschel Weingrod.

Directed by John Landis.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 116 minutes. Rated R.


Starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, Shari Headley, James Earl Jones, John Amos, Madge Sinclair, Eriq La Salle, Louie Anderson, Vanessa Bell, Frankie Faison, Jake Steinfeld, Clint Smith, Cuba Gooding Jr., Vondie Curtis-Hall, Samuel L. Jackson, Victoria Dillard, Garcelle Beauvais, Elaine Kagan, Tobe Hooper, Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy.

Screenplay by David Sheffield and Barry W. Blaustein.

Directed by John Landis.

Distributed by Paramount Pictures. 115 minutes. Rated R.

After decades of crappy comedies along the lines of The Adventures of Pluto Nash, Meet Dave, A Thousand Words and Norbit, it’s pretty easy to forget that when Eddie Murphy first started making movies after becoming a star on Saturday Night Live, he started on a wicked winning streak. His first three films – 48 Hrs., Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop – were not only damned good, they were all monster hits.

Well, get ready to feel old, because Trading Places is turning 35. In honor of that film’s anniversary, Paramount Home Video is re-releasing it, as well as Coming to America, which is turning 30. By the time that film came out, the bloom was already coming off the Eddie Murphy rose – he had made such stinkers as Best Defense, The Golden Child and Beverly Hills Cop II, foreshadowing a career full of lazy performances in misbegotten projects.

Trading Places is deservedly a classic. While Coming to America was not on the quality level of Murphy’s original trifecta – and it spurred a bit of controversy (humorist Art Buchwald sued the filmmakers for stealing the idea from an unproduced screenplay he had written) – it was all-in-all an imperfect, but pretty good comedy.

In fact, arguably it is the last time Murphy made a satisfying comedy that was not animated. Really, there are only a handful that even come close in the last three decades. I’d personally include Boomerang and Bowfinger as the only two comedies that approach to that level. Other people might include the remake of The Nutty Professor (which I’ve always felt was way overrated) and maybe Tower Heist. (I’m not counting the animated Shrek and Mulan films, nor dramatic performances like in Dreamgirls.)

However, Murphy’s longtime career inertia should not reflect on these two movies, one of which is terrific and the other of which is pretty darned good. Both were directed by legendary filmmaker John Landis at the height of his powers. (He also made Animal House, The Blues Brothers and An American Werewolf in London, though he has only made three totally unseen movies in the last 20 years.)

Actually, for as good as Murphy was in Trading Places, it was probably a bit more Dan Aykroyd’s movie. A look at class structures in the dawn of the greed-is-good Reaganomic ‘80s, it was a wonderful mix of high comedy and low comedy.

The high concept behind the film was rather brilliant. Two self-centered Philadelphia multi-millionaires, The Duke Brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) decide on a whim, for a $1.00 bet, to do a “social experiment” essentially meant to destroy two men’s lives. One is one of their most faithful, best employees, Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd), a pampered blue-blood who – in the words of one of the other characters – has never done a hard day’s work in his life. The other is Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), a street hustler with no education and no job.

The Dukes’ argument is whether a man is a product of his work ethic or his environment, so they decide to see what would happen if they put each man in the other’s shoes. They frame Winthorpe for drug dealing, stripping him of his job, his home, his money, his fiancée and his friends. In fact, the only person in his corner is a good-hearted prostitute (Jamie Lee Curtis). Then the Dukes slip Valentine into his life, temporarily giving him lots of money, a great house, a good job and responsibility.

How will the men change? Will Billy Ray turn into a responsible citizen? Will Winthorpe become a criminal?

This class warfare, with out-of-touch oligarchs becoming puppet masters on common lives, takes on a new power in the Trump years. The Duke Brothers’ casual manipulation of other people’s lives is sadly even more topical today. (They were the Koch Brothers before the Kochs were.) And the audience can’t help but cheer when Winthorpe and Valentine team up to not only become rich, but to try to bankrupt the Dukes.

However, for all the important sociological points the movie is making, Trading Places is a comedy first and foremost. And a damned good one. One of the better ones of the 80s. Some parts haven’t aged well – for example a scene with Aykroyd disguised in blackface as a ganga-smoking African. Some things are also a little melancholy due to history – there is a sequence outside of the World Trade Center in New York which takes on a gravity that was never meant in the original filming.

Still, Trading Places is totally worth its classic status.

Coming to America – 30th Anniversary Edition

If Trading Places was a collaborative film with Murphy sharing the spotlight with Aykroyd, Coming to America is Murphy’s show. Sure, he has a funny sidekick played by a pre-talk show Arsenio Hall, but Murphy was not about to share the spotlight. (Word is that Murphy’s star-tripping made the film a very, very uncomfortable set to work on, with co-stars and even director Landis complaining about Murphy’s big-timing them. Landis and Murphy even supposedly got into a fistfight on set.)

However, the turmoil behind the scenes don’t show up on the screen yet for Murphy. Even if James Earl Jones referred to him as a chill wind on the set, Murphy still works to connect warmly with his co-stars when the cameras are rolling.

Like Trading Places, Coming to America has a high-concept plot, though honestly a much less imaginative concept. Basically, it is a fish out of water story. Murphy plays Prince Akeem of the fictional African country Zamunda. He is next in line of succession to become King, but he rebels when his parents the King and Queen (Jones and Madge Sinclair) insist he continue in the country’s tradition of arranged political marriages.

Akeem is a romantic and wants to marry out of love, not political convenience. But where does a prince find his future queen? Queens, New York, of course. (Pause for the inevitable groan at that pun, which was stupid even back then.) And this is an old-school, pre-gentrified, rat-infested and crime-ridden Queens.

Akeem wants to fit in with the normal people of Queens, much to the dismay of his best friend and servant Semmi (Hall). Akeem wants to make sure that the woman he chooses will love him for who he is, not for what he has. So, they take a (surprisingly big) room in a run-down boarding house. They get minimum wage jobs at a local fast food joint called McDowell’s, a slightly shady McDonald’s knock off, so that the pampered prince can experience what it is like to be a normal working man.

After a series of unsuccessful meetings with women in bars, Akeem ends up finding the woman of his dreams in McDowell’s, Lisa (Shari Headley), the daughter of the money-obsessed owner of McDowell’s (John Amos). However – irony alert – she is being pressured into marrying the shallow-but-rich pretty-boy heir to a local Jheri-curl fortune (played by a pre-ER Eriq LaSalle).

Can Akeem’s courtly good manners and eternal good humor win her over?

In the meantime, Akeem loves being a normal guy as Semmi chafes against the existence and wishes for a return to luxury. They become well-known in the neighborhood, regulars at the restaurant, the bar, the local black community organization and the barber shop next door. The Dukes from Trading Places even make a cameo appearance.

Still, the early signs of Murphy’s downfall show up here periodically. This is the first movie in which Murphy does his tiresome shtick of playing multiple characters under lots and lots of makeup. (Hall also plays several roles here.) These little vignettes are rarely more than mildly amusing, and they also grind the plot to a halt each time, having nothing really to do with the rest of the story.

Honestly, watching Coming to America again with 30 years of hindsight, it is not quite as funny or as charming as you remember it being. Still, it does hold up fairly well and is worth another look.

If you want to take a trip back down memory lane to a long-ago point in time when Eddie Murphy was actually funny, these two disks are a good place to start.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2018 All rights reserved. Posted: June 12, 2018.


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