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Craig Gillespie’s “Dumb Money” gathers a few of the major and minor players in the GameStop short squeeze of 2021 and tells their story in an illuminating way, showing the imbalances on the playing field of the financial market. But the film never forgets to be entertaining, first and foremost. It will be compared to Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” but it's less of a direct lesson in the evils of capitalism, which is to its benefit. An incredibly likable ensemble holds Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s script together, and the director of “I, Tonya” finds a nice rhythm that doesn’t succumb to the hyperactive nature of films that try to do that McKay Thing. It’s a relatively concise, no-nonsense, short (100 minutes) comedy that reminds us that even when we think we’re playing the game, the opponent has a different rulebook.
Paul Dano grounds the film as Keith Gill, aka Roaring Kitty, a relatively unknown personality on the Reddit channel wallstreetbets, who became massive when he orchestrated a short squeeze against GameStop. The simplest way to explain this is that major hedge funds make a fortune off the failure of companies, essentially betting that they will go under and profiting off job loss and financial ruin. When Gill convinced his followers, mostly young people, to buy GameStop stock, it skyrocketed many times over its initial low buy-in. Gill became a multi-millionaire on paper but held onto the stock, sending billionaires into a tizzy, leading to a day-trading company called RobinHood colluding with a hedge fund owner to stop stock trading. An open market relies on buying and selling, which means someone here cheated. It led to Congressional investigations, including implications that Gill himself had insider knowledge, because how could someone from the sector of investors that the fat cats call “dumb money” have lost them billions?
Working from a book by Ben Mezrich (who also wrote the non-fiction book adapted into “The Social Network”), Blum and Angelo tell this story across a pretty wide canvas. In Boston, there’s Gill, his wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley), and his brother Kevin (Pete Davidson), who can’t believe his nerdy sibling is having this kind of impact. They also highlight a few investors, including a nurse named Jenny (America Ferrera), a GameStop clerk named Marcus (Anthony Ramos), and a pair of college kids named Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold). On the other sideline, Seth Rogen nails the spoiled idiocy of Gabe Plotkin, Vincent D’Onofrio sketches the eccentric Steve Cohen, Sebastian Stan bumbles through the arc of RobinHood head Vlad Tenev, and Nick Offerman glares the relatively vile Ken Griffin into cinematic existence.
It's a great cast, and Gillespie manages them well, never letting anyone steal the focus with a hammy performance. These kinds of broad pieces can often fail to cohere into one vision, and yet that’s not the case with “Dumb Money,” as Gillespie creates a strong supply of necessary information and character beats. But I could have used more of the latter in that sometimes “Dumb Money” lacks insight into the unique dynamics that brought this seismic financial shift to life. Yes, it’s not that movie, but there’s a version of "Dumb Money" that digs a little deeper, asking tougher questions about the forces of inequity and even how the pandemic impacted the event—everyone was at home watching Roaring Kitty clips, and trying to regain some semblance of control over a chaotic world. And one wonders if there wouldn't have been more outrage over the whole thing if the pandemic and other issues of 2020-21 weren't stealing headlines.
However, “Dumb Money” is better for not having too many speeches about the evils of capitalism. There’s an inferior version of this film that talks down to its audience or, worse, expects them to get heavily invested in its retail trading subculture. Gillespie smartly avoids those traps, keeping the dramedy fluid without resorting to melodrama. This is what happens when ordinary people finally drill a hole in the dam that the ancient institutions of this society have erected. Sure, the hole gets plugged up. But the people aren't going to stop trying.
This review was filed from the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival. "Dumb Money" opens on September 15th.
Paul Dano as Keith Gill
Pete Davidson as Kevin Gill
America Ferrera as Jenny Campbell
Nick Offerman as Ken Griffin
Anthony Ramos as Marcos
Sebastian Stan as Vlad Tenev
Shailene Woodley as Caroline Gill
Seth Rogen as Gabe Plotkin
Vincent D'Onofrio as Steven A. Cohen
Talia Ryder as Harmony
Olivia Thirlby as Yaara Bank-Plotkin