So Mike’s Take on the Movies and I were discussing unconventional Christmas movies we love, and this is one we both quote and mention a lot. It’s rude and crass and mean, and totally hilarious and classic because its heart is in the right place, and for all the nudity and objectionable language it’s still sentimental and sweet and plays like The Prince and the Pauper adapted by Capra.
The two corrupt Duke brothers, Randolph and Mortimer (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), are commodities brokers who spend their free time arguing about Randolph’s pet theory that people are products of their environment. At Christmas a golden opportunity arises to test this theory, when their annoyingly smug, entitled manager Louis Winthorp (Dan Aykroyd) wrongly accuses a bumbling hustler Billy Ray Valentine (Eddie Murphy) of a mugging. The Dukes bet one dollar that they can make a successful broker out of Billy and a lowlife of Louis, just by switching their surroundings.
Through frame-ups and public disgrace they reduce Louis to poverty. His stuffy girl leaves him and he’s taken in by Ophelia (Jamie Lee Curtis), a hooker with a brain and what else but a heart of gold. Meanwhile, Billy does wonders at Louis’ job, enjoys his lush life, becomes friends with his wise and wisecracking butler Coleman (Denholm Elliott), leaves his own freeloading friends behind and starts caring about “his” new possessions and goals. At the moment Louis has lost all hope and tries to kill himself, Billy discovers this has all been a horrible prank, so he and Louis, Coleman and Ophelia team up to turn the tables on the Dukes and take their place as the idle rich.
It’s a simple plot with lots of chaotic, outrageous farce, and it hits all the racist and political stereotypes you can imagine, but develops the jokes beyond predictable cliches and creates characters you can like no matter how offensive their behaviour. It’s perverse fun watching Bellamy and Ameche bicker, drop the F-bomb and gleefully destroy people’s lives for kicks and it’s highly satisfying watching them get their devastating comeuppance. There’s also a memorable double-cross of the Dukes’ ruthless inside man (Paul Gleason) during a drunken New Year’s Eve party on a train, thanks to some ridiculous costumes and a gorilla.
I’ve been quoting lines from this one for years: money isn’t everything Mortimer, here’s your dollar, beef jerky time, I’ll have you know this is a Rochefoucauld, help me with my rucksack, cultural director at the Haile Selassie Pavilion, and so on. “You didn’t think I’d forget your Christmas bonus, did you?” says Bellamy, proudly handing a private club employee five whole dollars; “thank you sir, I can go to the movies…By myself!” When the Dukes explain stocks to Billy in terms he might understand, like a BLT, Murphy shoots a deadpan look straight at the camera and thirty years later it still looks fresh. Murphy and Aykroyd at their best, plus memorable bit parts for Bo Diddley, Jim Belushi, Al Franken, Stephen Stucker and Frank Oz. This movie is still “looking good, feeling good,” and an unconventional Christmas classic. Now go check out Mike’s thoughts on it.