There’s always something off about Dumb Money, a look back at the revolutionary upending of the stock market by everyday retail traders sticking it to the billionaires and hedge fund managers who’ve seemingly rigged the game against everyday people. It’s not that the story at the heart of Dirty Money – based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Antisocial Network – isn’t worth telling, but rather that director Craig Gillespie’s film is both too scattershot and not far enough removed from the events being depicted to have much of an impact. Instead of a sprawling dramedy in the same vein as The Big Short – which this desperately wants to be – Dumb Money ends up having the same emotional and intellectual impact as the Reddit threads that helped spawn it. While it effectively portrays the stock market (and, let’s face it, capitalism in general) as the biggest casino in the world with rigged games of chance often won by those with the deepest pockets, Dumb Money stumbles at trying to lend any depth to that sentiment.
Keith Gill (played here by Paul Dano), a fledgling financial advice YouTuber, new father, and MassMutual employee from Brockton, Massachusetts, created a spark that would disrupt the stock market when he went out on a limb and told his followers that he thought the value of the retail company Game Stop was undervalued. Game Stop was a company in corporate free fall, and many high rollers in the market were shorting the stock, or essentially betting on the brand’s imminent failure. Throwing caution (and perhaps established “common sense”) to the wind, Keith goes all in on Game Stop stock, and people on social media, Reddit, and YouTube start to take notice and follow suit, creating what’s known as a “short squeeze” that places a lot of pressure on those heavily invested in the company’s demise. Soon, people everywhere are seeing their meagre or non-existent portfolios rising in value, while powerful players with a lot of skin in the market (exemplified here by Seth Rogen, Vincent D’Onofrio, and Nick Offerman) are losing billions, and the creators of the popular trading app fuelling the frenzy (Sebastian Stan, Rushi Kota) need to figure out what they’re going to do when they need to start paying out against their means.
The subject of Dumb Money, the derogatory term seasoned traders use to describe people trying to invest in the market outside of the establishment, would be a great fit for a limited series. There are many different players and perspectives to examine this phenomena that started in 2020, and the issues that persist to this day as a result of it. The impact of the Game Stop frenzy has a richness of personality to it and so many fine details that it seems custom made for long form storytelling. But some stories work better when everything is spelled out and laid out across multiple tables in a logical fashion instead of throwing everything into a pile in the corner of a room, which is precisely what Gillespie (I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl, Cruella) does with Dumb Money.
Screenwriters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (both of whom worked as staff writers on Orange is the New Black) whittle the topic and the dozens of perspectives fighting for screen time into a tightly wound 105 minute package. It’s an ambitious attempt, but the material and characters need a lot more time to evolve than they’re being allowed here. There’s everything involving Keith’s sudden fame, his worries, the loss of a family member, and his relationships to his wife (Shailene Woodley), obnoxious, irresponsible townie brother (Pete Davidson), and his parents (Kate Burton, Clancy Brown). Then there are the struggles of hedge fund manager Gabe Plotkin (Rogen, nicely playing against type here), a family man heavily leveraged and watching the company he built in financial free fall. There are moments spent with everyday investors – America Ferrera as a nurse, Anthony Ramos as a frustrated Game Stop employee, Talia Ryder and Myha’la as university students with mounting debts – to try an add a human face to things outside the sphere of big business. And there are the problems faced by the creators of the app driving the run, entrepreneurs who might see their new company’s chances of going public evaporating.
It’s too much for a single volume to handle with any degree of conviction, and the dynamics that fuelled the buy-in require so much explanation that characters are forced to inorganically and clumsily explain things in ways that sound less like human beings chatting and more like robots spouting bits of facts and history. The truncated package means that a lot of the personal details surrounding these people caught up in the whirlwind are similarly talked about rather than shown. There’s no space for anything in Dumb Money to develop organically or for quieter, subtler moments to take root and resonate outside of sequences involving Ferrera’s overworked single mother. Most damning of all, there’s no room at all to breathe, and Gillespie barrels forward relying on outdated jargon, netspeak, and barrages of memes to keep the visual momentum going in an otherwise dull and static looking film. Expect plenty of moments where people go about their business set to a hip-hop track from a couple of years ago and just as many montages of memes just to add some sort of visual element to this.
There’s also little room for hindsight or examination considering that Dumb Money is set just a couple of years ago, during one of the cumulatively worst periods of human history. A lot of the details involving this have yet to come out, wounds are still fresh, and successes are still being celebrated without much afterthought. As such, there’s very little parsing of events happening, and Dumb Money feels like someone performing an info dump at a dinner party. Sometimes the story is funny, sometimes it’s tragic, and there are some fleeting bits of engagement to be found, but plenty of questions still remain and viewers will ultimately be left wondering what the bigger lasting impact of events are. Sure, there’s a bunch of text at the end saying where these people went from here, but to what larger end? The pace of the film is rushed enough as it is, and without extra time to really plant seeds to provoke thought and reflection after the film is over, Dumb Money just sits there, thinking it has entertained and informed, content with getting in and out as soon as possible. The Game Stop incident was a quickly evolving phenomenon, but one with deep roots and sprawling branches. Dumb Money is like admiring a tree for its trunk and bark and nothing else.
The performances are all fine enough, but despite the sheer depth of the cast, none of them are tasked with doing much more than the basics. Dano, Rogen, and Ferrera in particular are doing their best to take their characters to another level, but this material and the constant need to cut away to some other aspect of the story is always working against them. But I can see why so many actors would be drawn to this story. Historically speaking and on the page the material seems rich. In practice, it’s an ungainly mess.
Dumb Money opens in select cities and theatre on Friday, September 22, 2023 and expands to additional markets on Friday, September 29.
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