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Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd), a privileged commodities broker, has a nearly-perfect life: he owns a big house, has a beautiful rich fiancée, and exclusive country club memberships. During the opening minutes of the film, Winthorpe runs afoul of supposedly homeless con man Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), and an unfortunate mixup (helped in part by Winthorpe's prejudice against blacks and poor people) gets Valentine arrested for trying to steal Winthorpe's briefcase.
Winthorpe's bosses, financial tycoons Randolph and Mortimer Duke, debate "nature vs. nurture" after witnessing Valentine's arrest. Mortimer believes good breeding makes a man a success, no matter how much opportunity the world provides to him, while Randolph believes a rich man will deteriorate and a poor man will succeed if placed in the right environment. The Dukes decide to run a social experiment by ruining a rich man's life, putting a poor man in the rich man's place, and seeing what happens. Winthorpe and Valentine become the Dukes' "test subjects", and the brothers make a bet on the outcome for "the usual amount".
The Dukes frame Winthorpe for possession of drugs and use a hooker named Ophelia (Curtis) to further humiliate him in front of his fiancée; Winthorpe loses his job, his house, and his fiancée in short order, and he ends up living with Ophelia, who takes pity on him. After ruining Winthorpe's life, the Dukes arrange for Valentine's release from jail, then give him Winthorpe's job and house. Randolph's prediction comes true: Winthorpe's life spirals out of control while Valentine becomes a success (even though he gains some of the same attitudes against the poor Winthorpe held).
Valentine eventually finds out about the experiment, then befriends Winthorpe in order to turn the tables on the Dukes. The duo plans an appropriate revenge involving a frozen-concentrated-orange-juice crop report, a train to New York, a commodities exchange floor, and the help of Ophelia and Winthorpe/Valentine's butler, Coleman. How does it end? Winthorpe and Valentine take the Dukes for everything they have via a short-selling scheme, then live Happily Ever After on an island with Coleman and Ophelia.
The movie did well at the box office ($90 million gross in 1983) and with critics (89% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes), who deemed it an entertaining and intriguing social satire (thanks chiefly to the stellar cast and the well-written script).
This movie provides examples of the following tropes:
- Actor Allusion: When Louis is arrested, one of the cops individually inspects each of his possessions, states what it is aloud, and then places it in a cardboard box. The cop is played by Frank Oz, who did the exact opposite (taking items out of the box and returning them to the protagonist) in The Blues Brothers.
- Affably Evil: The Dukes.
- Angry Black Man: Billy Ray to a certain extent.
- Arson, Murder, and Jaywalking: Winthorpe's descent into criminality is summarized as "pilfering in our club, embezzling funds, selling drugs, and now he's dressing up like Santa Claus."
- Aside Glance: It's a John Landis film, so this is to be expected. Billy Ray does it twice.
- Bad Santa: Winthorpe as Drunken Santa With A Gun.
- Badass Boast : Billy Ray in prison. It nearly ends in tears.
"A karate man bruises on the inside! They don't show their weakness. But you don't know that because you're a big Barry White looking motherfucker! So get outta my face!"
- Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults: This is how Billy Ray finds out what the Duke boys were really up to.
- Batman Gambit: The ending, big time. So complicated that people routinely have to do research away from the source material to understand it, but it makes sense if you're familiar with Wall Street tactics. Also, the Dukes' various schemes could be seen as failed examples.
- The Bet: Also drives the plot, for the ridiculously low and insulting sum of one dollar. Winthorpe and Valentine give it a mocking Ironic Echo at the end of the film.
- Big Bad Duumvirate: The Duke brothers.
- Black Comedy Rape: It's heavily implied that this is what happens to Beeks. By a gorilla.
- Blackface: Done very badly for Louis's disguise on the train.
- Break the Haughty: What happens to Winthorpe and the Dukes.
- The Cameo: Music legend Bo Diddley plays the pawnbroker.
- Chekhov's Gun: Winthorpe gives a little spiel to Penelope in the beginning about how he can't come to her party on Jan. 2 because that's the day the Secretary of Agriculture releases the crop report.
- Death Cry Echo: At the end of the climactic market scene.
- Development Gag: Former Nixon aide and Watergate felon G. Gordon Liddy was approached to play the part of Clarence Beeks. In the movie Beeks is shown reading Liddy's autobiography Will on the train.
- Dirty Cop: Played by Frank Oz, this is part of the scheme to ruin Winthorpe's life.
- Double Aesop: A quadruple one...
- Winthorpe: Learns his preconceived notions about the lower class (Billy Ray and Ophelia) were wrong and misguided.
- Billy Ray: That when you feel like you've worked hard for what you've got, it's a lot easier to care about what happens to it.
- Mortimer: Learns that Randolph was right about people being able to overcome their lot in life.
- Randolph: Learns that even though he was right about his "nurture" theory, it is wrong to bankrupt a man's life For the Lulz.
- Quintuple, if you count that Winthorpe learns that financial success is much sweeter when you earned it all through your own hard work instead of just being born into it.
- The Dragon: Clarence Beeks.
- Driven to Suicide: Winthorpe makes two back-to-back suicide attempts.
- Everything's Better with Monkeys: Although Beeks may disagree.
- Exact Eavesdropping: Valentine hears the Duke's sinister deal and all the important details.
- Fanservice Extra: The topless girls at Billy Ray's party.
- Fauxreigner: Half of the gang's disguises on the train, complete with the wrong accent from Ophelia. Justified as there was a New Year's Eve costume party going on in another car on the train.
- Fingertip Drug Analysis
- Get Out!: Valentine to the freeloaders in his new house, complete with a Precision F-Strike in the non-TV version
- History Marches On: Modern commodities markets have "breakers" that prevent prices from changing as rapidly as depicted in the film, precisely to avoid the sort of mess the Dukes tried to cause and profit from, as well as the kind of mess they ended up getting themselves into. These limits were added a few years after the film was made. The law that changed this is even informally known as the "Eddie Murphy Rule", though it may have had more to do with the real-life events that inspired end of the film (see Ripped from the Headlines below).
- Hoist by His Own Petard: Nearly everything the Dukes come up with wind up being used to bring them down, from the two men whose lives they decide to mess with to their own 'foolproof' plan to corner the market. Even the prostitute they get to assist the plan winds up working against them. If you look at how they train Valentine to be a successful broker, and likely trained Winthrope when he was younger, you could say they literally trained the gentlemen who destroyed them.
- Perhaps lampshaded when as the dejected Dukes realize how far they've fallen and they watch the triumphant Winthorpe and Valentine laughing at them, Mortimer asks Valentine "After everything we've done for you?"
- Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Ophelia to a T.
- Hourglass Plot: Drives the whole movie.
- Humiliation Conga: How the Dukes ruin Winthorpe's reputation and entire life. You can't help but feel sorry for the guy.
- Irish Priest: Coleman's disguise on the train.
- It Got Worse: Winthorpe's life has been ruined, his suicide attempt backfires and he finds out it's all been for a bet. THEN he finds out the bet was only one dollar.
- Intercontinuity Crossover: In Coming to America, which came out five years later, Eddie Murphy's character Prince Akeem gives money to two bums on the street. Those bums are the Duke brothers, who fail to notice Akeem's resemblance to Valentine.
- Karmic Transformation: Winthorpe and the Dukes.
- Kick the Dog: Nearly everything the Duke brothers do and every word that comes out of their mouths. Seriously.
- Large Ham: Winthorpe, constantly.
- Lyrical Dissonance: Listen to the lovely a capella song that the Upper Class Twits perform for Penelope and the other girls in the scene where Louis tries to borrow money. The song's about how all the girls are complete sluts.
- Mean Character, Nice Actor: Don Ameche was nothing but a gentleman in Real Life, and apologized constantly for his use of the N-word, and for his Precision F-Strike.
- Likewise Paul Gleason, who played Clarence Beeks. He could make Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd laugh.
- The Mistress: It's a bit part, but the hot blonde who whispers into Valentine's ear at a fancy dinner is billed as "President's Mistress".
- Mood Whiplash: While mostly a slapstick comedy, Winthorpe's descent into bankruptcy and depression comes off as poignant, and strikes hard when he attempts suicide. Swings back to light-hearted when he is revived and we realize the pitiful extent of the suicide attempt.
- Ms. Fanservice: Come on, people, Jamie Lee Curtis in lederhosen... and topless!
- Murder Is the Best Solution: Or extreme violence, anyway; upon learning of the plan to ruin his life, Winthorpe initially decides that the most appropriate course of action is to kneecap both of the Duke brothers with a shotgun, before Valentine and the others suggest a more... creative way of getting back at them.
- Nature Versus Nurture: The entire plot begins when the Duke brothers place a bet on which is true.
- New Year Has Come
- Obfuscating Disability: Billy Ray starts out as this, pretending to be a paraplegic Vietnam veteran to enhance his begging revenue.
- Oh Crap: As Louis and Billy Ray put their plan in motion:
Mortimer: That's not right. How can the price be going down?
- Paper-Thin Disguise: No one seems to notice that Beeks is wearing an obviously fake gorilla costume.
- Subverted with the good guys in the train car with Beeks. Their disguises are so pitiful and Beeks already knows what they all look like (especially Winthorpe and Ophelia) from prior encounters, so he figures them out almost immediately.
- Phony Veteran: Billy Ray's con scheme at the beginning of the movie.
- Politically-Incorrect Villain: The Duke brothers.
Mortimer Duke: Of course there's something wrong with him. He's a black man. Probably been stealing since he could crawl.
- Precision F-Strike: Mortimer Duke. So precise that actor Don Ameche didn't even want to say it (he abhorred swearing) and did only one take of the shot.
- Also a precision N-strike in the Bathroom Stall of Overheard Insults.
- Preppy Name: Louis Winthorpe III, Penelope Witherspoon and their country club friends.
- Prince and Pauper: Winthorpe and Valentine respectively, until they switch roles.
- Pygmalion Plot: Half of the Dukes' bet, this is the transformation they put Billy Ray through to make him an upper class gentleman. They have a Pygmalion Snapback planned as soon as they're done with him, though.
- Riches to Rags: Happens to Louis at the beginning, and to Randolph and Mortimer at the end.
- Ripped from the Headlines: The Dukes' attempt at cornering the frozen concentrated orange juice market was inspired by the "Silver Thursday" crash of March 27, 1980, when the Hunt brothers of Texas tried to corner the silver market and failed to meet a $100 million margin call.
- Salt and Pepper: Winthorpe and Valentine.
- The working title was even "Black and White".
- Scary Black Man: Big Black Guy and Even Bigger Black Guy. Natch.
- Less scary after Valentine's party.
Even Bigger Black Guy: It was a stone groove, my man! You are, the most, righteous...
- The Scrooge: The billionaire Dukes hand out $5 Christmas bonuses, and ruin an employee's life for a one dollar bet.
- Shadow Archetype: The Duke brothers are this to Winthorpe. Winthorpe started out every bit as wealthy and prejudiced as they were, but while Winthorpe grows out of his prejudices, the Duke brothers don't.
- Shown Their Work: The short-selling scheme was perfectly sound and perfectly legal at the time and commodities markets do not have the same laws against "insider trading" that stock exchanges do.
- Signature Style: John Landis always sticks "See You Next Wednesday" somewhere in his movies. In this film it's on a movie poster in Ophelia's apartment.
- Stereotype Flip: While most of the wealthy main characters are good caricatures of rich, blasé, arrogant rich people, Billy Ray and Ophelia prove to be more than just a street hustler and hooker. Quite against Mortimer's predictions, Billy Ray proves just as adept at being a commodities broker as Winthorpe, if not more. Ophelia makes no bones about being a hooker, but she's remarkably bright and business-savvy for one, going so far as to have a retirement plan from her life on the street.
- Technology Marches On: Ah, the days before computer trading.
- Louis boasts that his watch is waterproof to three atmospheres. Nowadays watches can be waterproofed to 50 atm.
- That Was Not a Dream: Winthorpe nearly strangles Billy Ray after this trope kicks in.
- This Bed of Roses: Winthorpe ends up on one of these.
- Those Two Bad Guys: The credits refer to the two characters Valentine runs into while in a jail cell as Big Black Guy and Even Bigger Black Guy.
- Tropical Epilogue
- Uncle Tomfoolery: The movie subtly deconstructs this character dynamic.
- Unflinching Walk: Winthorpe and Valentine walk slowly and confidently to the trading floor after the harried brokers race to it.
- Unintentional Period Piece: The shots of the World Trade Center (including a ground-perspective shot of how tall the towers were) cast a bit of a shadow on an otherwise fresh, entertaining comedy.
- Upperclass Twit: Winthorpe fits this at the beginning of the story.
- Urine Trouble: A dog lifts his leg on a drunken Winthorpe in his Santa suit.
- Video Credits
- Viewers Are Geniuses: The movie does not give a long-winded explanation as to how the ending scheme at the Commodities Exchange works, trusting that the audience could either follow what happens or figure out that things are going well for the heroes. The scheme works like this:
- The Dukes receive an advance copy of a crop report predicting rising prices for frozen orange juice; they commit to buying large quantities of frozen OJ before the report becomes public. Other traders notice their big push and follow their lead, which causes the price of frozen OJ to rise.
- Winthorpe and Valentine — who saw the real crop report and gave the Dukes a fake — know the price of frozen OJ will go down when the crop report hits. When the price rises high enough, they begin short-selling (they don't have it yet, but commit to buying it later) at the inflated price.
- When the crop report becomes public, the price plummets. Winthorpe and Valentine fulfill their buy-later commitments at increasingly rock-bottom prices, which locks in huge profits for both men.
- The Dukes, having committed to buy a lot of frozen OJ at an outrageously high price, desperately try to unload before their huge loss gets any worse, but their trader faints before getting very far. The New York Mercantile Exchange officials demand payment from the Dukes, but since they don't have enough capital, they end up bankrupted.
- Villainous Breakdown: Randolph has a heart-attack and Mortimer loses his mind (with a bonus Precision F-Strike) after Winthorpe and Valentine bankrupt them.
- Wham! Line: "Do you really believe I would let a black man run our family business, Randolph?" cements the idea that both of the Duke Brothers want nothing to do with Valentine after the experiment (and makes Valentine aware of this fact). After this line, the plot changes from "let's watch this hilarious swapping of lifestyles" to "let's watch them take those miserable SOBs down!"