If you didn’t have your head screwed on, you’d probably lose it. And then someone else could find it and put it on and then where would you be?
Well, I’ll tell you.
You’d be stuck wearing their head; that’s where. And their head? Who knows where that tatty thing has been? It could have been doing laps in the Cuyahoga River. It might have been eating bad clams. Possibly — just possibly — it was making out with your mom last night.
Oh, the humanity.
This week’s Mind Control Double Feature presents for your edification two tales of people who, losing their heads and misplacing their lives, get stuck with someone else’s. Perhaps this has happened to you?
If so, please send photographs.
Trading Places (1983)
John Landis is basically the funniest guy on the planet (now that Harold Ramis is dead). Some guys just leak funny non-stop out of both sides of their mouth, no matter what they’ve been eating. Landis is such a guy. He directed Animal House, The Blues Brothers, !Three Amigos¡, and others. He’s so funny that he’s responsible for two of the three films in which Dan Aykroyd is actually watchable.
One of those pictures is Trading Places.*
Trading Places is really goddamned funny. It is the rare example of a film — a comedy even! — that just nails it from start to finish, emotionally, intellectually, politically. Even 30 years later, the only thing dated about it is… nothing. It’s like The Wolf of Wall Street but a billion times better. Like Wolf, it’s about greed and entitlement, but unlike Wolf, the characters are relatable. And they learn.
The story is one of abducted identity. It starts with Randolph and Mortimer Duke (Ralph Bellamy & Don Ameche), brothers who run one of the most prestigious commodities trading houses in Philadelphia. They bicker about what’s more important in a person’s development: nature or nurture. Are we born who we are, or does society seal the deal?
When the Dukes witness an altercation between their golden boy trader Louis Winthorpe III (Aykroyd) and marginalized street hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy), they realize they’ve found ideal test subjects for an experiment. One man was born and raised as cultured, pampered, and nurtured as possible. The other never saw a stitch of luck and wouldn’t recognize a good break if it crapped gold on his pancakes.
Which, thanks to the Dukes, it will.
The Dukes bet each other that, given the right circumstances, Winthorpe will end up as crooked as Valentine and Valentine will prove as respectable as Winthorpe. Then they engineer those circumstances, wiping Louis’ name from the registry and elevating Billy Ray to his opposite’s place.
In Trading Places, Winthorpe gets tossed in the clink, booted from his house, dropped by his hoity-toity fiancée, and obliterated financially. Losing everything in an instant, he ends up dependent on Ophelia — a working girl played by underrated comedienne Jamie Lee Curtis. Contrastingly, Valentine is elevated overnight to a senior position at Duke & Duke and handed everything the brothers liberated from Louis — home, clothes, car, social position, and even the services of longtime butler Coleman (Denholm Elliot).
One might think that the drama and comedy that springs from these characters’ inverted roles would be more than enough for a film — and they’d be right. But Trading Places has a third act that runs like a rocket powered by nitrous oxide. It isn’t just a case of ‘all that came before but now with the volume turned up’; it’s a slyly conceived explosion of the assumptions set forth in the film’s opening.
It is also so funny and well-played you might not notice how exceptionally clever it is.
Here, it’s important to point out that no matter what dreck Eddie Murphy has been responsible for lately, he was once as funny and charismatic as anyone alive. Trading Places is his crown jewel. Aykroyd, on the other hand, is an inspired comedian but generally a terrible actor and even worse at choosing roles. In this film, you wouldn’t know it for a second. The supporting cast, too, kills. It isn’t just famous faces taking a stroll; it’s Don freakin’ Ameche and Ralph Bellamy — two of Hollywood’s greats — and other distinguished character actors inhabiting parts with depth and humor. There is no ‘wacky sidekick’. All of these performances communicate real people, and that’s important because Trading Places isn’t just funny.
Its humor is biting. The inequities of society are real. What we choose to value is perverse. If you can, put yourself in someone else’s position, assume their identity — just for an act or two —and see if that changes who you are.
Trading Places is the kind of film one never forgets. If you like Ghostbusters, or Caddyshack, or Young Frankenstein and you’ve never seen Trading Places, you’re missing what may be the best of the bunch. It is one of the few things that came from the 1980s that we remain proud of. It is a film to cherish. To own. To memorize and whisper deathbed confessions about.
I’m pretty keen on it.
Also, in it, keep an eye out for (Senator) Al Franken, Tom Davis, Bo Diddly, Frank Oz, and Paul Gleason as Clarence Beeks.
Face/Off is a ridiculous film. It is the cinematic equivalent of a bottle of Mentos and Diet Coke — bombastic, messy, preposterous stuff.
It’s hard not to love it.
The premise of the film is a gorgeous thing. Super awful terrorist-for-hire Castor Troy (Nicolas Cage) kills the son of wonder-cop Sean Archer (John Travolta) in a botched assassination attempt full of faded colors, swirling cameras, and lost balloons. Six-years later, Archer tracks Castor and his drippy brother Pollux (yes, really; Alessandro Nivola) to a private jet where dynamic fisticuffs and shooticuffs occur. Director John Woo holds nothing back. If something can explode in a torrent of sparks while a busload of violins is dropped off a cliff, so it shall be in slo-mo, or from six different angles, or while a helicopter lands on a plane, or all three.
Castor taunts Archer with the knowledge that he has planted a massive bomb somewhere in Los Angeles, but then rudely gets knocked into a coma so he can’t reveal where.
The nerve of some people.
The only way that Archer can possibly determine the location of the apocalyptic bomb is to shrink himself down to microscopic size and search Castor’s brain for the right memory cell. No. Just kidding. That would be totally unbelievable. Instead, Archer REMOVES HIS FACE and REPLACES IT WITH CASTOR’S.
Naturally. That was probably the first thing you thought of trying as well.
Then, wearing his nemesis’ face, Archer/Castor gets himself placed in prison with Pollux so he can trick his ‘brother’ into revealing the bomb’s location.
Simple, right? What could go wrong?
I’m glad you asked. What could go wrong is that Castor could wake up from his coma, find his face missing, and force the ‘physicians’ into sewing Archer’s face onto his skull. Thus disguised, Castor/Archer slaughters everyone who knows about the face swapping, and rubs Archer’s — er, his own — face in what now appears to be an awfully dire situation.
It’s basically the most insane premise for a film this side of that one in which Charlie Sheen played a scientist. Even better, for most of the film Nic Cage plays at being John Travolta acting like Nic Cage and John Travolta acts like Nic Cage acting like John Travolta. It’s enough to make you eat your hat, or the hat on whomever’s head you’re currently wearing.
Batshit, nutsy-cuckoo, cray-cray, extra-tight banana-pants insane.
WITH EXPLOSIONS! AND FLYING DOVES! And is that Joan Allen? What’s she doing in this film? Earning a living?
OKAY! You go Joan Allen! Say hi to Dominique Swain and Gina Gershon. Although I would have thought Gershon would have learned her lesson after Showgirls? No matter.
MORE EXPLOSIONS!!!! WATCH OUT FOR THE DOVES!!!
Even as much as I despise John Travolta as a humorless hunk of fleshy gelatin, I have to admit that his brand of lunatic, alien, overwrought schmaltz is near perfect in Face/Off. I say ‘near perfect’ because it’s nowhere near as good as Nic Cage’s impossible-to-brand, psychotic, megalomaniacal, cryptozoological performance.
This movie is like watching two giant tigers on fire battling each other with laser scimitars.
And who thought up Travolta’s weird ‘I’m going to palm your face as a sign of affection’ gesture? It’s like something a fifth grader would make up as part of a fictitious story of his non-existent sexual exploits.
But all this is beside the point, because Face/Off is a touching film — like creepy uncle touching. Watch both actors reveal the perils of becoming what you’re not. What’s it like to wear another man’s life? It is, in a word, disorienting. Also, a boat may fall on you.
And there you have it. What better way to celebrate your first successful foray into identity theft then with this perfect pairing of films about dopplegänger management? Enjoy your evening. We wish you good luck with all of someone else’s endeavors. Watching Trading Places and Face/Off will certainly help, no matter what you’re considering.
Please return my head when you’re done with it.
* The other two are The Blues Brothers and Ghostbusters. Assuming we’re not counting Behind the Candelabra.