Back in 2006, five years after 9/11, the question of when enough time had passed for Hollywood to grapple with a national tragedy was a conversation at the forefront of pop culture, with audiences greeting films like United 93 and World Trade Center with something between apprehension and outright rejection. No one is likely to confuse Dumb Money, a foul-mouthed comedy about Redditors inflating the value of GameStop’s stock to stick it to hedge fund managers, with Paul Greengrass’ unflinching account of sacrifice in the face of terrorism, but there’s sure to be a “too soon” quality for many viewers. Set during 2020 and 2021, Dumb Money is far from the first film or TV show to address Covid-19 (masks and hand sanitizer show up in movies all the time), but it does speak directly to the societal malaise the culture was living under and how people kind of lost their minds during lockdown. It’s a time capsule of isolation, loved ones cruelly taken from us, poor masking technique, mass closures, errant coughs causing anxiety attacks, and the overriding sensation that wealthy assholes were living it up while everyone else was terrified that the bottom might fall out at any moment. It’s not a film about the pandemic per se, but is rather a curious financial news story that feels like it only could have happened during the single dumbest time to be alive. If nothing else, the aptly titled Dumb Money captures that period with unnerving clarity. Its other virtues, however, remain very much up for debate.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s 2021 nonfiction book The Antisocial Network — perhaps the most startling film credit of the year is the Winklevoss twins turning up as executive producers here — the film is ostensibly about Keith Gill, an analyst for MassMutual and amateur investor who, during the pandemic, started live streaming his thoughts on stocks he believed were being undervalued by the market. Webcasting under the name Roaring Kitty and a regular presence on the Reddit forum “wallstreetbets,” Keith is a soft-spoken dork (between this and The Fabelmans, Paul Dano is in danger of becoming typecast) with long, stringy hair, a red martial arts bandana, and a truly mortifying collection of cat t-shirts. And like many of us, Keith was just trying to stay sane while camped out in his home. A young father and husband (Shailene Woodley, plays his supportive wife, Caroline, in a bit of a nothing part), Keith poured his entire savings into buying stock of GameStop, an archaic brick-and-mortar video game retailer that’d been all but left for dead. Believing that the fundamentals remained strong and the negatives were overstated, he sensed growth potential. Or, as he succinctly explains to his growing online fanbase, even becoming an unofficial catchphrase, “I just like the stock.”
Keeping tabs on retail investors like Keith are predatory hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen, again serving as an antagonist of sorts to his The Fabelmans co-star, Dano) of Melvin Capital Management. Gabe, when he’s not trying to tear down a beachfront mansion in order to build himself a private tennis court, is leveraging his multi-billion dollar fund to short the GameStop stock, viewing the entire thing as akin to taking candy from a baby. For those who don’t recall the lessons of Margot Robbie in a bathtub, shorting is betting against the performance of a stock, making more money the worse it does; for the purposes of this particular tale, what’s important to remember is that while typical investors’ losses are limited to the amount they’ve spent, someone shorting a stock is theoretically on the hook for unlimited damages should it over-perform. Gabe and other hedge fund managers like Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) love amateur investors like Keith, pumping “dumb money” into a rigged system, losing their kids’ college funds and mortgage payments chasing whims and trends, while money managers continuously rake in cash and remain insulated from actual consequences. However, riding an unexpected populist wave coupled with a large dollop of coordinated nihilism care of message board edgelords, the GameStop stock steadily rose over months, to the point that shares that had traded for under $2 a year earlier briefly got as high as nearly $500. The “short squeeze” inspired an industry panic, leading to ethically questionable practices by electronic trading companies, a flurry of cable news hits, the interest of some of the worst people on earth (including Elon Musk and Barstool Sports’ “El Presidente” Dave Portnoy), and even congressional hearings. Also memes. So many memes.
Although Keith is effectively the film’s protagonist, Dumb Money is in reality a sprawling ensemble; encompassing half a dozen retail investors, following his advice through their phones and computers, hanging on his every word — “diamond hands” becomes a mantra as investors make an implicit pledge to not sell their shares at the first sign of trouble which would screw over everyone else. We meet a hospital nurse and single mother in Pittsburgh (America Farrera), two college student lovers in Austin (Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold), and an actual GameStop retail employee in Detroit (Anthony Ramos). Also, Pete Davdison is hanging around pulling typical Pete Davidson antics as Keith’s ne’er-do-well brother (his disregard for hygiene is all the more horrifying when you remember the context). These characters serve largely as a Greek chorus, commenting on actions almost entirely outside of their control beyond continuing to dump their modest savings into the stock. This underscores the biggest problem with the film: none of these people are really responsible for this phenomenon, but are rather merely passionate participants being carried along by it. It’s akin to watching a group of people standing around a craps table while another player is on an epic run: they want the hot hand to continue because they can benefit from it, but they have no actual agency other than deciding when to stop putting chips on the table and walk away.
The film is decentralized by design. None of these characters cross paths with one another, are able to take concrete actions, or possess some special insight that allows them to game the system — even Keith, by his own admission, has difficulty accounting for why the stock exploded the way it did. The most common refrain uttered throughout the film (other than “holy fucking shit”) is “what do we do?” Roaring Kitty hasn’t posted anything in a day, what do we do? The value of the stock appears to have reached its apex, what do we do? The Reddit forum they all subscribe to is taken down. The mobile trading app, RobinHood, is no longer accepting orders for GameStop. In every instance, our characters huddle like terrified lemmings, unsure of whether to fling themselves off a fiscal cliff until their bandana-wearing demagogue appears in a small window on their computers, assuring them everything will be okay and to hold the line. It may reflect the behavior of actual amateur investors, but it makes for middling cinema.
Dumb Money is directed by Craig Gillespie, a one-time journeyman filmmaker whose more recent output (I, Tonya, the miniseries Pam & Tommy) could best be described as a more glib Adam McKay. The commentary of the film is your basic snobs vs. slobs dynamic, with the Plotkins and Griffins of the world established as uncaring masters of the universe eating gourmet food at rented-out resorts and ostentatious mansions — in an observant nod, all the private masseuses and personal chefs wear masks around the residence and are never told “thank you” — while our sympathetic characters trudge off into the cold to do essential jobs, living and dying with the stock price ticking up a dollar here or there. While working-class folk question the fairness of a system that feels stacked against them — this is the second time this year that Ferrera gets to deliver an earnest monologue about what a soul-crushing time it is to be alive — hedge fund bros and technocrats like Sebastian Stan’s RobinHood co-CEO throw raging house parties in the middle of a pandemic. The righteous anger is justified, but the class warfare and perverse pleasure of watching Plotkin’s hedge fund hemorrhage a billion dollars a day predictably gives way to the realization that the entire “stonks” phenomenon was essentially a blip on the radar that resulted in little systemic change. A handful of regular people cashed out, a scummy hedge fund went under, and nobody faced prosecution despite lying to Congress (we’re also meant to chortle at a postscript where we learn Robinhood’s IPO fell on its face). The entire film feels designed to trick people into eating their vegetables and perhaps learn a thing or two about stock manipulation by reducing the story to nice, hard-working people who just want to pay for their children’s braces vs. slimy captains of industry with wine collections. But the film fails to capture how much this market disruption was driven by the sort of irony and “burn it all down” cynicism that’s given us much of what’s been awful about the last decade or so. A more introspective film might be a little rueful of catching a tiger by its tail. Instead, we get a major motion picture about the nobility of anonymous Internet trolls. Terrific.
Published as part of TIFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.