Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Nurture, Nature, and Eddie Murphy

"All right, gather up kids, it looks like one of the best movies of all time is on."

"Isn't Eddie Murphy in this, Daddy?"

"Yup, back when he was funny, thank Bowdler."

"Thank what?"

"Huh? Oh, nothing. It used to have some swear-words is all. I don't think it loses much."

"Where's Eddie Murphy? Who are those people?"

"He'll be here pretty soon. Now see he used to be poor, but those two old guys..."

"Who's that guy?"

"That's Dan Aykroyd. I think this was the only time he was funny. Now look, he used to be have Eddie Murphy's job, but those guys switched. They're trying to say..."

"He looks pretty gross."

"Yeah, well, he's had some hard times. That's kind of the point."

"Why is she dressed like that?"

"Um, well, she's not a real classy girl."

"What's a pimp? Daddy? What's a pimp?"

"Yes, well, see, they're those guys that dress all crazy like I was telling you before. They, um, are mean to girls though. They take all their money."

"He looks pretty sad."

"That's kind of what they're getting at. You take someone's money away, and look where it gets them. But he was pretty lucky in the first place, you know? And now he has to find out how everyone else lives."

"He's not a very nice Santa."

"Shush now, this is a funny part."

"Hey, there's Eddie Murphy!"

Thank god she didn't make it far enough to ask me explain their stock trading scheme.

That conversation Thing One's way of picking on me a little, giving back what she usually gets. My kids always follow the rules, but that's more because they prefer to be creative and could often give a rat's ass about the letter of the law (this according to their teachers, which makes me secretly, and excessively, proud). That's my little angel. Be a playful little pain in the ass.

Maybe it's wrong to call Trading Places one of the best ever--there are extraneous gags, and the closing sequences are oddly put together--but I've got to call it out as one the best-directed comedies. Even though it channels a piece of young Murphy's comic energy, it's much more a director's project than a star vehicle. The best jokes are elaborately constructed, set up with the care of a Rube Goldberg machine. There are half a dozen scenes where John Landis crescendos and concentrates the energy up to a single point, balances it on a pin, and uses the smallest possible change to send the momentum in a completely different direction. Maybe it's meant to capture the dynamics of floor trading. The false calm shattered by the opening bell and the huge shift when the crowd shifted from buy to sell, are very much examples of what makes this movie tick.

It's not just a matter of timing. Landis worked to make that big pivot in the smallest possible space too. There's one scene where Eddie Murphy is surrounded by (white) cops with guns, which were arranged to fill the whole of the shot except for the star's face, very small in the frame. The entire mood of the scene hinges on Murphy breaking a smile. Time to laugh, everyone.

He used space to paint wealth and poverty too, letting the two worlds emerge as characters of their own, shrinking the actors when the abstracts need to have their screen time. Even though the film's 25 years old, it's probably singularly responsible for my (positive) mental image of urban Philadelphia. I don't imagine using setting as character is terribly original, but Landis was clever enough to let it crack a joke or two as well. One of the better scenes, where the Dan Aykroyd character is fired, an executive pool of hundreds of harrumphing old men is dwarfed by an enormous wood-paneled boardroom, the embodiment of old money. It ends with the portraits of the founders looking down in silent disapproval from their bygone eras. Brilliantly timed.

I couldn't explain any of this to my children, who are still brainwashed to think that low-budget Nickelodeon's live action crap is the essence of comedy. Hell, I think they giggled at drunken Santa (the rain opening up when he steps off the bus, the gun going off after he fails to shoot himself, both brilliantly timed) only because they are so conditioned to laugh track cues that they did what I did. They didn't appreciate a damn bit of it in fact, but it was fun trying to get them to.

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