Some films are obviously Christmas movies, like Noelle. But that designation is not so clear cut for others. They may be set during the holiday season, and they may even touch upon Christmas themes, but does that mean they truly qualify in the traditional sense? To find out, we’re putting those movies on trial and laying out all the evidence for and against them by answering some pertinent questions, just as we did with Die Hard, Gremlins, Edward Scissorhands, Iron Man 3, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, Rocky IV, and Batman Returns. And the latest movie to take the stand in our great Christmas movie debate is hoping its season stock(ing) is about to go up. That’s right, it’s time to buy or sell holiday shares in Trading Places.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, ask yourself…
How much of Trading Places takes place at Christmastime?
Roughly 75% of Trading Places is set during Christmas time in chilly Philadelphia. (The other 25% runs from New Year’s Eve to January 2, with the final sequence on a tropical island taking place a during an unknown time in the near future.) The film is full of festive trees and other holiday decor, though not much Christmas music. A big important sequence also takes place during a Christmas Eve work party, which Dan Aykroyd’s Winthorpe crashes in the dirtiest Santa costume ever put on screen. It’s both delightful and disgusting.
Would Trading Places be fundamentally different if it were set at any other time of the year?
Story wise not really. There aren’t a lot of specific plot elements that tie directly into the holiday. Christmas is mostly present in decorations and the cold weather. The Christmas Eve party and following scenes are the only aspect that would fundamentally change if they took place during another time, but mostly because you’d lose the visual of a drunk, totally out of control Santa. Hiding an entire salmon filet in an Easter bunny costume just doesn’t deliver the same type of laugh.
Do any of the film’s major themes apply to Christmas?
Some very important themes have no connection with traditional Christmas ones. Those include racism, nature vs. nurture, and revenge. But some of the film’s biggest ideas certainly apply to the season. Greed, class structure, friendship, and kindness are all out of Charles Dickens’ holiday playbook.
The problem in trying to give Trading Places thematic Christmas credit is that while greed leads to the villains’ downfall, greed is also how the good guys win. And it’s not like they use their new unimaginable wealth to spread goodwill. They all move to a remote paradise where they reside like kings. That’s not in the spirit of the season. There’s a reason A Christas Carol doesn’t end with Bob Cratchit bankrupting Scrooge and moving Tiny Tim into Buckingham Palace.
Does watching Trading Places at Christmastime enhance the experience?
Trading Places is a comedy set during Christmas rather than a Christmas comedy. There’s only a tangential relationship between the events on screen and living through the holiday season. It’s not any more or any less funny if you watch it any other time of year. Eddie Murphy is equally charismatic and hilarious 365 days.
It would be different if the big payoff—when Billy Ray and Winthorpe ruin the Duke brothers—happened on Christmas rather than around New Year’s. That “out with the old/in with the new” ending does land with a little more oomph if you watch Trading Place around January 1st. The conclusion has more to do with the spirit of New Year’s than the spirit of Christmas.
Has this film been accepted as a Christmas movie tradition?
You’re not going to believe this, but an R-rated comedy that includes nudity, adult-language, homophobic slurs, drug use, blackface, and the strong insinuation a gorilla sexually assaults a human has not become a seasonal viewing staple during the most wonderful time of the year.
Okay, maybe you do believe it. But in fairness, while many elements of Trading Places—like so many other ’80s comedies—have not aged well, the film is great enough to still get played on basic cable any time of year.
THE FINAL VERDICT
This one is close. Any film setting during the holiday season that ends with two rich, greedy, corrupt, amoral, racist a-holes getting their complete comeuppance is a Christmas miracle we want to re-experience every December. And if that payoff took place during Christmas we’d probably find in favor of the film’s holiday bonafides. Instead we have to short this movie’s holiday stock, especially since it has not become a traditional part of the season yet.
Not that Billy Ray and Winthorpe should care. They’re looking good and feeling good even if Trading Places does not qualify as a Christas movie.