The film was written by Timothy Harris and Herschel Weingrod and was produced by Aaron Russo. It was released to theaters in North America on June 8, 1983, where it was distributed by Paramount Pictures. The film earned over US $90 million during its theatrical run in the United States, finishing as the fourth highest earning film of the year and the second highest earning R-rated film of 1983.
Denholm Elliott and Jamie Lee Curtis won the awards for Best Actor in a Supporting Role and Best Actress in a Supporting Role, respectively, at the 37th British Academy Film Awards. The film was nominated for several additional awards including Best Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy at the 41st Golden Globe Awards.
Duke brothers Randolph and Mortimer own a successful commodities brokerage in Philadelphia. Holding opposing views on the issue of nature versus nurture, they make a wager and agree to conduct an experiment switching the lives of two unwitting people at opposite sides of the social hierarchy and observing the results. They witness an encounter between their managing director—the well-mannered and educated Louis Winthorpe III, engaged to the Dukes' grand-niece Penelope—and a poor street hustler named Billy Ray Valentine; Valentine is arrested at Winthorpe's insistence because of a suspected robbery attempt. The Dukes decide to use the two men for their experiment.
Winthorpe is publicly framed as a thief, drug dealer and philanderer by Clarence Beeks at the request of the Dukes. Winthorpe is fired from Duke & Duke, his bank accounts are frozen, he is denied entry to his Duke-owned home, and he quickly finds himself vilified by Penelope and his former friends. He befriends Ophelia, a prostitute who agrees to help him in exchange for a financial reward once he is exonerated. Meanwhile, the Dukes bail Valentine out of jail, install him in Winthorpe's former job and grant him use of Winthorpe's home. Valentine soon becomes well-versed in the business using his street smarts to achieve success, and begins to act well-mannered.
During the firm's Christmas party, Winthorpe is caught planting drugs in Valentine's desk in an attempt to frame him, and he brandishes a gun to escape. Later, the Dukes discuss their experiment and settle their wager for one dollar, before plotting to return Valentine to the streets. Valentine overhears the conversation, and seeks out Winthorpe. Winthorpe attempts suicide by overdosing on pills. Valentine, Ophelia and Winthorpe's butler Coleman nurse him back to health and inform him of the Dukes' experiment. On television, they learn that Clarence Beeks is transporting a secret USDA report on orange crop forecasts. Winthorpe and Valentine recall large payments made to Beeks by the Dukes and realize that the Dukes plan to obtain the report to corner the market on frozen orange juice.
On New Year's Eve, the four board Beeks' Philadelphia bound train, intending to switch the forgery with the original report. Beeks uncovers their scheme and attempts to kill them, but he is knocked unconscious by a gorilla being transported on the train. The four disguise Beeks with a gorilla costume and cage him with the real gorilla. The forged report indicating that the year's orange crop will be low is then delivered to the Dukes. Valentine and Winthorpe travel to New York City with Coleman's and Ophelia's life savings to carry out their part of the plan.
On the commodities trading floor, the Dukes commit all their holdings to buying frozen concentrated orange-juice futures contracts; other traders follow their lead, inflating the price. Meanwhile, Valentine and Winthorpe sell futures heavily at the inflated price. Following the broadcast of the actual crop report, showing that the orange crop will be normal, the price of orange-juice futures plummets. Valentine and Winthorpe close their futures position by buying futures at the lower price from everyone but the Dukes, turning a large profit. The Dukes fail to meet a margin call, and are left owing $394 million. Valentine and Winthorpe explain to the Dukes that they had made a wager on whether they could simultaneously get rich while making the Dukes poor. Valentine collects $1 from Winthorpe while Randolph collapses holding his chest and Mortimer shouts angrily at his brother about their failed plan. Later, the now wealthy Valentine, Winthorpe, Ophelia, and Coleman vacation on a tropical beach, while Beeks and the gorilla are loaded onto a ship heading for Africa.Dan Aykroyd as Louis Winthorpe III
Eddie Murphy as Billy Ray Valentine
Ralph Bellamy as Randolph Duke
Don Ameche as Mortimer Duke
Denholm Elliott as Coleman
Jamie Lee Curtis as Ophelia
Kristin Holby as Penelope Witherspoon, Louis Winthorpe's fiancée.
Paul Gleason as Clarence Beeks
The cast also includes Robert Curtis-Brown as Todd, Winthorpe's romantic rival for Penelope; James Belushi as Harvey, a party-goer on New Year's Eve; Jamie Lee Curtis' sister Kelly Curtis cameos as Penelope's friend Muffy; Frank Oz as a police officer; James Eckhouse as a police officer; Muppet performer Richard Hunt as Wilson; and Bo Diddley as a pawnbroker. Tom Davis and Al Franken, also Saturday Night Live cast members, cameo as train baggage handlers.
The storyline of Trading Places—a member of society trading places with another whose socio-economic status stands in direct contrast to his own—often draws comparisons to Mark Twain's novel The Prince and the Pauper. First published in 1881, the novel follows the lives of a prince and a beggar—both of them of adolescent age—who use their uncanny resemblance to each other as a premise to switch places temporarily; the prince takes on a life of poverty and misery while the pauper enjoys the lavish luxuries of a royal life. Parallels have also been drawn between Trading Places and Mozart's 18th century comic opera The Marriage of Figaro in which a servant (Figaro) foils the plans of his rich master who tried to steal Figaro's bride to be. The music from The Marriage of Figaro is used as a cinematic narrative in the film when the viewers are introduced to the daily routine of protagonist Louis Winthorpe's privileged life with the opera's overture playing in the background. The work also takes inspiration from Twain's The Million Pound Bank Note.
David Budd, in his 2002 book Culture Meets Culture in the Movies, writes about the experiences of characters when the expected roles of races in society are sometimes reversed. The 1995 fiction film White Man's Burden and John Howard Griffin's factual book Black Like Me are used as a foundation to show how different the experience of white people can be when subjected to the prejudices faced by black people. In that respect, Budd proclaims Trading Places as "uncannily illustrative if heavy-handed". Beginning from the premise that, in the film, the "expectations of the races also stand upon their head", Budd states that "through even a highly comedic vessel a message loudly asking for a reassessment of prejudice, and for level playing fields, is heard."
American philosopher and professor at Harvard University Stanley Cavell wrote about Trading Places in his 2005 book Cavell on Film. Cavell postulates that film is sometimes used as a new technology in the production and experience of an opera. He explains that this axiom asserts its importance not in the fact that "our time" sees an increased expectation of new operas being developed but, rather, in the fact that there is an increased expectation of "new productions of operas." Cavell draws a comparison of themes between Trading Places and the opera The Marriage of Figaro, stating that "what Trading Places wants from its reference to Figaro is mostly the idea of resourceful and sociable young and poor overcoming with various disguises the conniving of the unsociable old and rich but with no sense that the old may be redeemed by a recognition of their faults and no revolutionary desire to see the world formed on a new basis."
Trading Places was released theatrically in the United States on June 10, 1983. During its opening weekend, the film earned $7.3 million from 1,375 theaters—an average of $5,334 per theater—ranking as the third highest-grossing film of the weekend, behind Octopussy ($8.9 million)—debuting the same weekend—and Return of the Jedi ($12 million).
The film remained in the top ten grossing films for 17 weeks. It went on to earn $90.4 million during its U.S. theatrical run, making it the 4th highest-grossing film of 1983, behind Flashdance ($92.9 million), Terms of Endearment ($108.4 million) and Return of the Jedi ($252.5 million), and the second highest grossing R-rated film of 1983, behind Flashdance. Adjusted for inflation, the film remains the number 58 highest-grossing R-rated film of all time.
Trading Places was met with positive reviews from critics. Review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes gives the film an approval rating of 86%, based on 42 reviews, with an average rating of 7.3 out of 10. The site's consensus states: "Featuring deft interplay between Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, Trading Places is an immensely appealing social satire." Metacritic gave the film a score of 66 out of 100, based on 9 critics, which indicates "generally favorable reviews".
Author and critic Richard Schickel of Time magazine called Trading Places "one of the most emotionally satisfying and morally gratifying comedies of recent times". While admitting Aykroyd's success in demonstrating "perfect prissiness as Winthorpe", Schickel commented on Murphy's performance as Valentine calling Murphy "a force to be reckoned with" and stating that he "makes Trading Places something more than a good-hearted comedy. He turns it into an event." Film critic Roger Ebert of Chicago Sun-Times awarded the film three and a half stars out of four, while offering that the film resembles Tootsie and comparing it to comedies of Frank Capra and Preston Sturges. Ebert stated "This is good comedy"; he commended the character development in the film calling the characters "wonderful comic inventions" and explained that the comedy is successful because it "develops the quirks and peculiarities of its characters, so that they're funny because of who they are." He further commented on the cast by favorably commenting on acting as "engaging", stating that "Murphy and Aykroyd are perfect foils for each other", that they're both capable of being "specifically eccentric", that "they both play characters with a lot of native intelligence" and concluding that "It's fun to watch them thinking." Commenting on Bellamy and Ameche in the roles of the Duke brothers, Ebert called their involvement in the film "a masterstroke of casting."
Janet Maslin of The New York Times repeated some of Roger Ebert's sentiments stating that "Preston Sturges might have made a movie like Trading Places - if he'd had a little less inspiration and a lot more money." She, again, also commended the cast by calling it "well-chosen", commenting on Murphy and Aykroyd as "the two actors best suited", stating that the Duke brothers were "played delightfully" by Ameche and Bellamy and—concluding that "the supporting cast is also quite good"—praising Curtis for managing "to turn a hard-edged, miniskirted prostitute into a character of unexpected charm." Jay Carr of The Boston Globe called it "easily the best of the movies I've seen by the various Saturday Night Live alumni." Empire magazine awarded the film a rating of four stars out of five, classifying Trading Places as "Excellent" per the magazine's star rating system, stating that Murphy and Aykroyd are the show-stealers. A review of the film published by Variety magazine called the film "a light romp geared up by the schtick shifted by Dan Aykroyd and Eddie Murphy." The review gave further commendations to supporting actors, stating that Murphy and Aykroyd "couldn't have brought this one off without the contributions of three veterans - Ralph Bellamy, Don Ameche and the droll Englishman, Denholm Elliott" and calling the presence of Jamie Lee Curtis "enjoyable."
The film received several award nominations in 1984 including an Academy Award, two Golden Globes, and three BAFTA awards. Elliott and Curtis attracted the film's two wins, earning respectively, the BAFTA award for Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress.
A score album was released by La-La Land Records on October 11, 2011 and was limited to 2000 copies. The album features Elmer Bernstein's Oscar-nominated score, as well as the source material that he wrote and arranged, including traditional Christmas carols that appear in the film. A significant portion of Bernstein's music is based on Mozart's music from The Marriage of Figaro. "Do Ya Wanna Funk," a hit song by Sylvester featured in the movie, was omitted from the album. The song "The Loco-Motion" by Little Eva is also heard on the train scene and is credited on the film.
Almost 30 years after its release, the plot for the movie was part of the inspiration for new regulations on the financial markets. On March 3, 2010, Commodity Futures Trading Commission chief Gary Gensler stated, in testimony he gave to the 111th Congress: "We have recommended banning using misappropriated government information to trade in the commodity markets. In the movie Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy, the Duke brothers intended to profit from trades in frozen concentrated orange juice futures contracts using an illicitly obtained and not yet public Department of Agriculture orange crop report."
The "Eddie Murphy Rule", as it came to be known, later came into effect as Section 136 of the Wall Street Transparency and Accountability Act of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, under Section 746, which dealt with insider trading.
In Italy the movie has become a Christmas classic, being broadcast by Italian television every year, from December 24, 1997.