Two aging brother-tycoons have opposite views on the nature/nurture debate. Randolph (Ralph Bellamy), the advocate of nurture, challenges Mortimer (Don Ameche) to a bet to prove his view. They will bring it about that their protégé Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) will be falsely accused of crimes and lose everything, to see if he doesn’t become a criminal; conversely, they will take jive-ass dude Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) under their wings, to see if he doesn’t become a sophisticated jet-setter. Thus the title: the two young men trade places, though not of their own volition.
At length, the two young ones find each other and plot to wreak vengeance on the two old ones, Billy Ray turning because he overhears the old ones confiding to each other that “of course we don’t want a nigger managing the family fortune.” Thus, the pair that is conspirator and the pair that is (intended) victim swap, as a second-level “trading places.”
The sub-text is rather disturbing. We are drawn into rooting against the old market-manipulators; but in doing so we are drawn into rooting for the young market-manipulators. Meanwhile, the pension funds, widows, and middle class investors end up footing the bill, though of course this is not shown. Unlike the market boom-bust manipulated by Dr. Mabuse in the 1920 silent film, which however is shown as a criminal enterprise, here, we are the ones manipulated, into ratifying the very kind of thing that is, on the surface, condemned. In that sense, the movie can be regarded as another “revelation of the method.”
There is a lot of physical comedy that is very funny. Denholm Elliot as the butler is great as the straight man. Unfortunately, it is not good family entertainment because of some needless (though mostly non-erotic) nudity.