In 1983's Trading Places, Eddie Murphy plays a pauper who becomes a prince of finance. In 1988's Coming To America, he plays a prince who masquerades as a pauper to find his ideal wife. Both films cleaned up at the box office during Murphy's Reagan-era heyday, and both let director John Landis channel Frank Capra. Trading Places taps into the farcical prankster side of Capra's persona—Landis describes it as his version of a '30s-style "social comedy"—in its irreverent tale of a small-time con man (Murphy) who trades places with stuffy über-WASP Dan Aykroyd at the whim of playfully perverse tycoon brothers Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche. America, meanwhile, shares Capra's fondness for moral comedies about pure-hearted innocents who'd rather make their own way in the world than blindly follow tradition. Places' exposition sometimes creaks and groans—it has a lot of plot to unpack, and it takes its sweet time doing so—and its caricatures are broadly drawn, all simpering bluebloods and funky, uninhibited, clothing-averse hustlers. But Aykroyd, Murphy, Bellamy, Ameche, and Jamie Lee Curtis as an impossibly benevolent hooker are perfectly cast, and Elmer Bernstein's Oscar-nominated score and Robert Paynter's cinematography give the film a retro grandeur that's part Charles Dickens, part screwball comedy. In a perfect world, Places would qualify as little more than a solid comedy, but standards have fallen so low that it's largely regarded as a classic, a billing it doesn't quite warrant.
Bellamy and Ameche reprise their battling-brothers characters for a goofy in-joke cameo in Coming To America, a disarmingly sweet fish-out-of-water comedy in which Murphy's good-natured African prince toils as a janitor at a fast-food restaurant in Queens while wooing the pretty daughter of owner John Amos. Murphy and sidekick Arsenio Hall—whose scene-stealing performance here seemed to promise a dazzling film career that never materialized—famously donned Rick Baker's makeup to play multiple characters, but unlike in Norbit, the effect is sweet and affectionate rather than grotesque and scatological. Murphy would soon exhaust the comic possibilities inherent in donning layers of latex to become a one-man lowbrow vaudeville extravaganza, but his shtick still felt fresh here, probably because there's an awful lot of heart hiding under all the prosthetics.
Key features: Both discs include the standard battery of fawning featurettes, though some are surprisingly interesting.