13 Ways In Which Movies Break The Fourth Wall

11) Social Commentary: Trading Places (1983)


This is the briefest break on the list, but it carries an impact that is both comedic, and socially significant.

John Landis’ 1983 partial modern day interpretation of Mark Twain’s 19th Century novel The Prince and the Pauper, Trading Places, is a longstanding classic. Starring Dan Akroyd as a rich, upper-class commodities broker (Louis Winthorpe III) and Eddie Murphy (Billy Ray Valentine) as the homeless street hustler, the story involves their lives being interchanged when the Bellamy Brothers owners of the commodities company make a bet that someone from Valentine’s social standing is incapable of being taught to live as though he had been born further up the social hierarchy. Having framed Winthorpe for various crimes and denied him all access to his bank accounts, assets and house, the brothers then move Valentine into Winthorpe’s position, both domestically, and professionally. This means the brothers having to teach Valentine the basic ropes of commodity brokering.

They sit Valentine down at a table on which there are five examples of commodities, and begin explaining what commodities are. The explanation starts unremarkably enough, with Ralph describing commodities as ‘agricultural products.’ When he starts to describe each individual item, however, the descriptions get progressively more and more simplistic: “Coffee, that you had for breakfast; wheat, that is used to make bread; pork belly, that is used to make bacon…” Valentine is nodding along co-operatively.

That is, until Ralph feels that he needs to explain what bacon is as well, via the use of a presumably relatable example: “…pork belly that is used to make bacon, which you might find in a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich..” At this point, Eddie Murphy looks straight into the camera, his expression an unmistakable portrait of the reaction, “….really??”

Of course, this short moment is immediately funny for having been so perfectly delivered by the indomitable Eddie Murphy – but there is also within it a connection to an unpleasant undertone that has been running beneath the surface of the movie from the moment the rich, white characters clash with the poor, black Valentine.

The brothers are horrendously prejudiced (to many people’s surprise, the movie actually used the ‘N’ word at one point), and automatically assume that because he is black and homeless he must have the mental age of a three year old. Although Valentine has been given everything by these men, it is clear that he is not sure whether or not he likes them – and the audience certainly don’t. They are materialistic, conceited, painfully superior, and – worst of all – complete bigots (it would be nice to assume that the brothers were only caricatures of people like this, but sadly they do actually exist.) Murphy’s fourth wall break here is a brief moment in which he shares with the audience a reaction that flies in the face of this archaic and discriminatory attitude.