I had a random thought whilst watching Trading Places on Christmas Day. It could be the case that it’s not a great movie simply because it deals with transitions and frictions between class and class, race and race, left wing vs right wing (notice the villain Beeks is reading a G. Gordon Liddy book in the scene where he is confronted with his own nightmares of stereotypical foreigners, or that one of the Dukes keeps a portrait of Reagan on his desk), but also between pre- and post-Shakespearean dramatic modes.
At the start of the movie, Winthorpe’s problems are purely a test of his mettle and his resolve. He has risen to the top because of a tandemic telationship between his own capabilities and the blessings bestowed upon him by the gods (here read the Dukes, the covert American class system, socio-ethnic advantages, free market forces or whatever feels most applicable to you). He is a classic, borderline epic hero.
After his fall from grace, his problems are internal. Though forces conspire against him, these forces are no longer so Olympian. His fake beard getting caught in his food, his gun misfiring, a dog urinating on him, the rain starting at the most inopportune moment. Without the backing of the gods, his main issue now is one of adaptability. He must reason through his new circumstances and define himself in his post-Classical context. Like Hamlet, he is informed of his betrayal and swears revenge, and like Hamlet his conflict is primarily personal and secondarily circumstantial. Achilles’ battle with Hector is one of destiny, Odysseus’s journey home must occur because he is rightful king, husband, father; Othello’s kingship, on the other hand, is less important than the fact he allows himself to be torn down by outside influences, just as Macbeth’s descent is likewise a result of personal weakness being manipulated by smaller external chaotic anti-destinies. When Winthorpe triumphs, it is because he has overcome these demons within as well as without, befriended those once considered his natural inferiors – a black man, a prostitute, a manservant.
This could all just be hungover bollocks I’m talking, of course. It takes a lot of port and brandy before you watch Dan Ackroyd putting a gun to his head and think of “take arms against a sea of troubles…” However, next time you watch it, bear iin mind that Winthorpe’s girlfriend’s name at the beginning is Penelope, but by the end, he’s shagging Ophelia.