Trading Places and
Coming to America
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
Still, the early signs of
Murphy’s downfall show up here periodically. This is the first movie in
which Murphy does his tiresome schtick 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.
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
All rights reserved. Posted: June 12, 2018.