John Landis’ 1983 classic is often overlooked in discussion of Christmas films, perhaps because the film’s events take place over the course of roughly a couple of weeks, during which time Christmas – and indeed New Year – is only a part. Nevertheless, it ticks a fair few boxes as an archetypal Christmassy tale: it’s a morality piece, telling a rags-to-riches (and a riches-to-rags-and-back-again) story as successful stockbroker Louis Winthorpe III (Dan Aykroyd) is made the unwitting subject of a bet between his bosses, the wealthy Duke brothers (Don Ameche and Ralph Bellamy), over the relative merits of genetics and environment and subsequently forced onto the street as a disgraced accused criminal, while smart-mouthed petty crook Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) is elevated to his former position.
And, of course, in addition to establishing a highly tangible seasonal atmosphere with the snow-drenched pavements of Philadelphia and the lavish decorations at the Heritage Club, Christmas is an integral part of the film’s middle section, as the Christmas Eve party at Duke and Duke represents the lowest point in Winthorpe’s cruelly-induced fall from grace – drunkenly crashing the party in a grubby Santa suit before getting pissed on by the weather, a passing dog and, indeed, life itself.
Christmas aside, it’s a terrific film – sharp and witty (you have to love the multiple meaning of the title, referring not only to the swap performed on the two leads, but also to the way they swap fortunes with the Dukes at the end, the physical switching of the all-important crop reports, and even to the fact that the film’s denouement takes place at a ‘trading place’: the World Trade Center), and with a uniformly superb cast (of whom too many – Bellamy and Ameche, Denholm Elliott, Paul Gleason – are no longer with us) all at the top of their game. Murphy has arguably never been funnier, but Aykroyd shows some real chops as well, making Winthorpe snobby enough in the early stages that we can take schadenfreude in his initial downfall, but showing enough depth of character – and the influence of Jamie Lee Curtis’ Ophelia – that we’re firmly on his side even before that Christmas party.
It’s only really at the beginning of the final act, with the tedious train sequence and its uncomfortable use of Aykroyd blacking up to ‘disguise’ himself as a Jamaican (in a film that had already done well in pointedly demonstrating the shockingly flippant racism of white upper class gentlemen like the Dukes, it feels wildly incongruous), that it sags. But the scene is easily skippable (you miss only a single chapter point on the DVD by doing so) and doesn’t detract from the enjoyment of an otherwise pitch-perfect feel-good romp.
It’s also on Christmas morning, meanwhile, that Elliott’s butler Coleman gets to magnificently deliver one of the film’s best lines. As Louis and Billy Ray debate how the Dukes are planning to use their ill-gotten insider information to corner the frozen orange juice market “unless someone stops them”, those terribly English tones chime in from the corner of the room. “Or beats them to it,” he declares, brandishing a tray. “Eggnog?”
My favourite xmas film: Batman ReturnsMy favourite xmas film: Home AloneMy favourite xmas film: Die HardMy favourite xmas film: It’s A Wonderful LifeMy favourite xmas film: ElfMy favourite Christmas TV Programme: Knowing Me, Knowing Yule
22 December 2008