Filmlab: Best finance movies of all time – 2. Trading Places

Finance is a serious business, although perhaps the most intricate depiction of its complexities is to be found not in a drama, but in one the funniest, bawdiest and most beloved American comedies of the 1980s. Trading Places – John Landis’ yuletide classic about a commodities broker and a vagrant whose lives are switched, The Prince and the Pauper-style, as part of a cruel bet to test out the nature-vs-nurture theory of success – may have put Eddie Murphy on the path to superstardom, cemented Dan Aykroyd’s funnyman credentials and exposed Jamie Lee Curtis’ gifts as a leading actress, but it’s almost as famous for its authentic depiction of life on the trading floor.

Trading Places Poster copylab

The simple elegance of its punning title certainly belies the brain-ache that comes from trying to figure out how, exactly, Murphy’s Billy Ray Valentine and Aykroyd’s Louis Winthorpe III manage to bankrupt Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche) at the end of the movie. With the elderly miscreant siblings upending our heroes’ lives for the sake of a one-dollar bet, Winthorpe and Valentine’s scheme to get revenge on the Dukes by sending them to the poorhouse depends on a bafflingly tricky bit of stockbroker jujitsu involving frozen-orange-juice futures, insider trading and a quirk of the industry that allows commodities brokers to sell high first and then buy low to fulfill their contract commitments.

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Purveyors of brain-ache

It’s all there in the high-pressure chaos of the World-Trade-Centre-set finale. Having figured out the Dukes’ plan to corner the frozen-orange-juice market using information from an illicitly obtained Department of Agriculture crop report, Winthorpe and Valentine intercept the report themselves and feed the wrong information to the Dukes, allowing them to win big on the markets while simultaneously wiping out the fortunes of their rapacious (former) employers.

But the film’s brilliance is its unwillingness to simplify this scheme for the sake of general audience comprehension. As NPR’s money expert Robert Smith pointed out in a terrific blog about the finale of the film posted last summer to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the movie’s release, the key line in Trading Places is the barely comprehensible one Winthorpe screams amid the din of the trading pit: “Sell 200 April at 142!” As the Dukes’ broker is driving up the price of frozen orange juice (in the mistaken belief that the harsh winter has adversely affected the crop), Winthorpe and Valentine are short-selling contracts for OJ in April at the much lower price of $1.42.

And the significance of this? The other hungry-for-profit brokers pounce, believing the price in April will be much higher. When the actual crop report (the one to which Winthorpe and Valentine have been privy) is released in the midst of trading, however, the price plummets and, as the other traders dump the stock they’ve been buying, Winthorpe and Valentine hoover it up at rock-bottom prices, secure in the knowledge they have commitments to buy it from them at $1.42 per pound, which allows them to pocket millions in profit and leaves the Dukes over-leveraged to the tune of $392 million.

Okay, so trying to comprehend this still makes the head spin a little, but such rigorous attention to ridiculous detail provides its own comedic comment on craziness of the financial world – one that’s as amusing as Valentine’s early on-the-nose assessment of the Dukes (“Sounds to me like you guys are a couple of bookies”); or Winthorpe’s hilariously terse, Gordon Gekko-prefiguring pep-talk to Valentine outside the Twin Towers (“Once you get inside it’s either kill or be killed. You make no friends in the pits and you take no prisoners.”); or the sight of out-of-shape brokers comparing notes on their various stress-induced medical conditions in the bathroom of what Winthorpe calls “the last bastion for pure capitalism on Earth.”

The fact that a couple of scumbag bankers get their come-uppance only adds to the film’s enduring appeal, though anyone left questioning why Winthorpe and Valentine escape to paradise and aren’t themselves undone by an investigation into their own dealings can stop: incredibly, until 2010, it wasn’t actually illegal to use misappropriated government information to trade commodities. Following the 2008 financial crisis, however, the Commodities Futures Trading Commission thought it might be a good idea if such practices were banned for the sake of transparency. And the name they gave the ban? The Eddie Murphy Rule.

Alistair Harkness, Film Critic, The Scotsman, 20 August 2014