It took me a few minutes to figure out what makes director Craig Gillespie’s (I, Tonya; Lars and the Real Girl) latest work, Dumb Money, different from the slew of films we’ve gotten about recent historical inventions or events that set the world on fire and then were snuffed out for one reason or another. The real-life events re-created for this film just happened in the last couple of years, so there’s no room given over in the screenplay for nostalgia mining (through wardrobe choices, needle-drop soundtrack moments, etc.). These events are still in our short-term memory, and that frees up time not having to establish time and place—we’re in the now. The screenplay is by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, adapting the book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich,
The movie tells the story of investor and financial analyst Keith Gill (Paul Dano), who lived outside Boston and occasionally posted investment advice via YouTube live streams under the alias Roaring Kitty. He has a habit of seeking out what he considers undervalued stocks, frequently ones that hedge funds were betting on bottoming out in the near future—stocks like that of video game store GameStop. Gill has a wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley) and a newborn and is barely making ends meet. He has an idiot brother named Kevin (Pete Davidson) and supporting, working-class parents (Kate Burton and Clancy Brown), and the family suffers a major loss when Keith and Kevin’s sister dies. In other words, Keith is no investment wizard with inside information and endless resources; he’s just a guy who liked this particular stock, and he ends up inspiring others in similar financial situations to trust his judgment and throw a few bucks at GameStop stock as well, eventually pushing the price up…slowly at first.
The other part of this story is that of the billionaires who were hurt by this phenomenon. Through their hedge funds, they were betting that GameStop was going to go bankrupt at any second, and that simply wasn’t happening as the stock value continued to climb, largely because of Keith’s confidence and the fact that he sunk his life savings into the stock. In the end, everyone got rich except the rich guys, some of whom went belly up in the process, including Melvin Capital Management’s Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), and his even richer, slightly less-impacted billionaire buddies, hedge fund manager Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Citadel CEO Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), who all seem to be doing everything but working any time the film checks in with them.
Director Gillespie also shows us these events through the eyes of the everyday investors who followed Gill, including a GameStop employee (Anthony Ramos), a deep-in-debt nurse (America Ferrera), and a pair of college students (Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold), all of whom are tempted to sell when their small investments turn into tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. But because Gill stays with the stock, they do, too. When this unheard of trend begins to cost the hedge funds billions of dollars, Congress is asked to step in and investigate, but even those hearings turn into an attack on the hedge funds rather than an accusation that Gill did anything wrong. I also really love that, because these events all take place during the height of the pandemic, the film embraces the aesthetic of just a couple of years ago: masks, distancing, Zoom calls and hearings. I’m not sure if that counts as nostalgia, but it is historically accurate.
I also want to give credit to Sebastian Stan, playing Vlad Tenet, the CEO of the trading app Robinhood. As much as I enjoy seeing Stan in the Marvel movies, few actors inhabit playing an idiot with more authenticity and glee than he does. Vlad is frequently put forward at his company as the spokesperson, and he couldn’t be more wrong for that job, frequently making things worse for all of his rich pals.
The film that Dumb Money reminds me of the most is Adam McKay’s The Big Short, because both films are less about a singular event or product and more about a seismic shift in the country’s largely unchecked financial bedrock. They both find ways to make the complicated understandable (mostly), and neither are afraid to name names and point fingers. Gill did nothing wrong, but he was treated like a criminal and major financial institutions tried to take him down by rigging the system and cheating. Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised to see that two of the film’s executive producers were Cameron & Tyler Winklevoss (portrayed so lovingly in The Social Network); perhaps they identified with miscarriages of justice at the hands of a rich guy.
The fragile family dynamics of the Gills is what I loved the most about this movie, but the entire film is just so accessible, laugh-out-loud funny at times, and a portrait of a revolution that no one saw coming, the rippling waves of which we’re still seeing today—because this story is about today. Seriously, it feels like this all happened three days ago. It’s also tense, triumphant, and gives us a bit of hope for things to come.
The film opens in theaters today.
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