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Trading Places (1983)

by on 2011/12/27

“We took a perfectly useless psychopath like Valentine, and turned him into a successful executive. And during the same time, we turned an honest, hard-working man into a violently, deranged, would-be killer.”

* * * *

I just finished reading a book written by UK writer and documentary filmmaker, Jon Ronson, called The Psychopath Test:  A Journey Through the Madness Industry.

Mostly about the booming business of mental illness, the book centres on a test developed by Canadian criminal psychologist, Robert Hare, designed to evaluate whether or not someone is a psychopath.

While the test is complex and needs to be administered by a professional trained in the Hare Psychopathy Checklist Revised (PCLR) process, people who are sociopaths or psychopaths often display the following characteristics:

  • Glibness and superficial charm
  • Grandiose sense of self-worth
  • Pathological lying
  • Shallow affect – emotions are often short-lived and self-centred
  • Tendency to blame others
  • Parasitic lifestyle – other people are a means to an egocentric end
  • Impulsivity and proneness to boredom
  • Lack of empathy
  • Promiscuity and poor behavioural controls

Robert Hare focused most of his field research on prisons and prisoners, he confided to Ronson that he regretted not extending his analysis into the business world.

Hare said he felt he would find a fertile testing ground in business –  positing that psychopaths would be particularly drawn to management, running businesses, trading stocks, and overall, manipulating people out of their hard-earned money. Because psychopaths crave dominance and control, it was felt the business world would hold significant appeal to those with psychopathic tendencies.

Watching the great John Landis film Trading Places again this Christmas season, I was put immediately in mind of Jon Ronson’s book and this notion that psychopaths are clustered thickly on the trading floors of Wall Street as well as in the corner offices of businesses.

Hare argued that psychopaths don’t feel the same fear, anxiety and nervousness others might feel when confronted with negative stimuli, for example, happening upon a fatal traffic accident. Because they lack an emotional connection with life and other people, the focus instead becomes narcissistic “winning.”

The game, playing with people’s lives, becomes the obsession. In Trading Spaces, we meet Randolph (Ralph Bellamy) and Mortimer Duke (Don Ameche), two dried-up, joyless commodities dealers, so disconnected from reality that their only enjoyment is staging elaborate experiments with human life.

In this case, the Dukes collude to swap the lives of one, Louis Winthrope III (Dan Akroyd) and Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy). Valentine is a con man and Wintrope is a trader. Perhaps it isn’t a huge stretch…

The sociopathic Dukes strip the privileged Wintrope of his  reputation, home, friends, money and girlfriend. Billy Ray is bailed out of jail, and given Wintrope’s life.

Hilarity ensues. It really does.

This is Akroyd at his absolute best. I could watch the scenes of his downward spiral complete with impersonating a jolly old elf in a filthy Santa suit, over and over and over. I have.

A particular favourite is dirty Santa stealing an entire smoked salmon from the fancy party buffet, and then eating it through his matted, grey Santa beard on the bus.

Festive gold. Also an excellent source of omega-3 – and beard hair.

Murphy is similarly outstanding as the charming, street-wise Valentine. But far from being a psychopath, Valentine is a sympathetic, charming hustler with a heightened sense of integrity and human loving kindness when he discovers the Duke’s scam.

The funny is bolstered by great supporting performances from Jamie Lee Curtis as Ophelia, the hooker with both good business sense and a heart of gold. The long-suffering conscience of the piece is the butler Coleman (Denholm Elliot).

This is a great movie for our unconventional Christmas marathon and a nice demonstration of psychopathy in the business world.

As psychopaths are more common than I previously thought – more than three out of every 100 men, and 1 out of every 100 women- there might be one in a corner office near you.

Er, happy holiday and all the best in the New Year.

* * * *

116 minutes

Rated R for lots of toplessness, drug references, Santa waving the gun around

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