The plot hinges on a bet made by two brothers, Randolph and Mortimer Duke, rich geezers who own a commodities brokerage firm. One of them (I forget which) thinks that breeding is everything, while the other (honestly they’re interchangeable) believes he could take any old man off the street and transform him into a perfectly fitting-in member of the elite.
The Dukes decide to make a bet, for “the usual amount,” as follows: first, they destroy the managing director of their firm, Louis Winthorpe III (Ackroyd). They frame Winthorpe, who is engaged to their grandniece, for drugs, adultery, theft. The Dukes fire him, freeze his bank accounts, get him kicked out of his club, and lock him out of his home (which they own). The grandniece leaves him, obviously.
Meanwhile they pick up a street hustler by the name of Billy Ray Valentine (Murphy), give him Winthorpe’s job and home, and educate him on the finer points of commodities trading.
When Winthorpe shows up at the office Christmas party dressed as Santa, trying to frame Valentine, screaming and waving a gun around, the Dukes conclude that nurture has won out over nature and settle their bet -- and that is when we learn how much “the usual amount” is.
Randolph: Pay up, Mortimer, I've won the bet.
Mortimer: Here. One dollar.
Randolph: 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.
The smugness on their faces. The slight chuckles as they congratulate themselves. The utter inconsequentiality of it all to them, as they toy with people’s lives like pawns on a chessboard. For a single dollar.
I have been thinking about this movie ever since Elon Musk put in his offer to buy Twitter.
Let me be clear: I don’t know Musk. I have no idea what drives him, what goes on in his head, what he’s trying to accomplish with this deal. I also like Teslas, I think we should all be switching to solar, and I think SpaceX is cool.
But when someone who is already the CEO of not one but two hectocorns (a word I learned specifically for this article, meaning a company worth upwards of $100 billion) tries to take over a third, one that is in an entirely different space than the other two -- well, I can’t help but think this is a little bit of a game to him.
And if, in the course of playing this game, actual human beings -- Twitter investors, staff, users of the service -- get their lives turned upside down, well, so be it. It’s all a bit amusing, isn’t it?
In “Trading Places,” Valentine and Winthorpe work out what happened and get their revenge on the Dukes. In this reality, Tesla stock craters, Musk's net worth plummets, he tries to back out of the deal, he randomly announces himself as a Republican, and it comes out that he allegedly exposed himself to a flight attendant and then paid her to keep quiet (as you would when you view yourself as the world’s greatest champion of free speech).
It doesn’t matter, any more than the fate of the Dukes matters. It’s all ridiculous billionaire chess games, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I only wish we didn’t have to be the pawns.