Monday, December 06, 2004

"Beef jerky time!"

Early this morning, during my caffeine-loading hour, random channel-flipping landed me on one of the HBO iterations (and to think, there was a time when there was but one HBO channel, and we were happy) where the movie Trading Places was unspooling. I stopped to check it out over the remainder of my first megacup o' joe, and enjoyed a number of hearty chuckles, even though I've seen the movie literally dozens of times.

You've no doubt seen the picture, as it's been a TV staple for nearly 20 years (it was released in 1983). Eddie Murphy is a street hustler and con artist named Billy Ray Valentine, whom we first meet while he's masquerading as a legless Vietnam-vet panhandler. Dan Aykroyd is a commodities broker name Louis Winthrope III, who lives in a mansion overseen by his faithful butler Coleman (Denholm Elliott) and works for a pair of super-rich brothers by the name of Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche). Unbeknownst to Valentine and Winthorpe, the Dukes have made a bet between themselves about what will happen to the con artist and the preppy broker if forced to switch lives. The plot revolves around the results of that wager, and how, once the Dukes' plot is revealed, Valentine and Winthorpe conspire together to get revenge. As Valentine puts it, "You know, it occurs to me that the best way to hurt rich people is by turning them into poor people."

For me, Trading Places falls into that category of films that define the cinematic equivalent of comfort food. It's not the highest quality fare, and it's probably not all that good for you, but it sure feels warm and cozy going down. Whenever I stumble across it on my rambles along the cable menu, it's always good for momentary entertainment value if nothing else is on. I never quite tire of its inexhaustible wealth of immortal scenes:

1. Frank Oz, better known to millions as the voice of Miss Piggy, as a venal police officer inventorying Winthorpe's personal effects at the station house, finds a pair of theater tickets.

"Two tickets to...'La BO-heem,'" he says.

"La Boheme," Winthorpe corrects him. "It's an opera."

Oz, to his police crony, in the snootiest manner imaginable: "It's an OP-ER-AH."

2. Winthorpe, describing the horrors of jail to his socialite fiancee who has come to bail him out: "Those men wanted to have SEX with me!"

3. Winthorpe, desperate for cash, attempts to hock his seven-thousand-dollar Swiss watch at a pawn shop owned by blues legend Bo Diddley. Diddley offers fifty dollars for the watch, causing Winthorpe to launch into a feature-laden sales pitch, culminating in a list of cities for which the watch will display the current time: "Monte Carlo, Beverly Hills, London, Paris, Rome, and Gstaad."

Diddley, unimpressed, intones, "In Philadelphia, it's worth fifty bucks."

4. Having hit rock bottom, a drunken Winthorpe dresses up in a Santa suit and smuggles a whole filet of smoked salmon out of the Dukes' office Christmas party, then eats the beard-and-fuzz-encrusted fish on a bus while his fellow passengers' stomachs turn handsprings.

5. Winthorpe, Valentine, Coleman, and Winthorpe's newfound lady love, a prostitute named Ophelia (the always watchable Jamie Lee Curtis), infiltrate a New Year's Eve costume party on an Amtrak train in the most outlandish get-ups imaginable: Valentine becomes an exchange student from Cameroon with a passion for beef jerky, Coleman a tipsy Irish priest, Ophelia the reincarnation of Heidi — albeit with a faux Swedish accent that clashes with her lederhosen — and Winthrope, with brown shoe polish smeared on his face a la Gene Wilder in Silver Streak, is a jovial Rastafarian. Hilarity ensues.

None of this, nor any of the other dozen or so equally humorous bits sprinkled throughout the film, sounds especially funny as I write about it. But Murphy, Aykroyd, and the rest of the cast have a great time with the thin material, and the byplay among the characters is splendid. Plus any flick in which four guys stand at a bar and sing pretty creditable a cappella glee club harmony is aces in my book.

Trading Places isn't Shakespeare, or even La Boheme. But I'll probably pause to watch it again the next time I find it on the tube.

1 insisted on sticking two cents in:

Anonymous Anonymous offered these pearls of wisdom...

Betcha you never realized that the chant Valentine and Winthorpe do for the benefit of Mr. Beeks quotes Hugo Ball's Karawane:

wulubu ssubudu, uluw ssubudu

12:16 PM  

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