At a time of a constant barrage of political and financial unrest that glares at our present-state governments and economies, it’s nice to hear a story about the time the people nudged the needle, even if just a little bit. Breaking off a piece of one of the “power to the people” successes of the pandemic era comes Dumb Money, which chronicles the tale of guillotines made of memes and hashtags.
Paul Dano takes the reins as the now-reclusive, Keith Gill, a financial analyst moonlighting as a YouTuber. He lives a “getting by” lifestyle, doing well enough to support his young family and drinking dunkin’ coffee and cheap beer. Between days as an analyst, he shares his thoughts on the stock market with a Reddit group, Wall Street Bets, and on YouTube as Roaring Kitty. In the midst of COVID-related turmoil, Gill bets against Wall Street’s ploy to drain GameStop stock for gains, buying up the stock and believing the company will prevail. His online advice to buy up the stock accidentally starts a movement whereby internet retail traders gobble up GME stock creating a catastrophe for short sellers betting against it. The mild-mannered internet meme-man ends up rallying the masses to take down the big guys in a David vs. Goliath story that finally sees a few finance bros pushed off the top.
The story is true, of course, and though the film makes it feel extra glamorous, it doesn’t shy away from the ultimate futility of the actions of the common man. It’s based on the book, “The Antisocial Network” by Ben Mezrich (who also wrote the book which was adapted for Fincher’s The Social Network and one adapted into The Last Casino and 21). What it chronicles, quite shortly after the real events, is the wild story of the GameStop short squeeze that happened in 2021 at one of the highest points of a global pandemic. Dumb Money makes the not-so-subtle connection between the massive visibility of financial inequity in the pandemic (and resulting economic crises) and the rage of regular people in financial disarray. Using some real people and some composite characters, the story connects how “retail sellers” valued their GME shares not just as access to more cash, but as a weapon in a revolution, tearing down the types who made money when the companies that paid their bills failed. There are the college students with debt whose parents went broke when their companies were cannibalized by private equity firms, and there’s the essential healthcare worker grinding at a hospital and struggling to make her mortgage payments despite getting applauded in the streets. Each of them has a bone to pick with the uber rich whose problems are limited to outdoor tennis court access in a lockdown. It’s this imperative connection that contextualizes the story and ensures the movie isn’t simply an exposition dump of finance mumbo-jumbo framed with the words “Stonks” and “HODL.”
Director Craig Gillespie, returning to TIFF after I, Tonya, is absolutely the right guy to tell a story that’s funny because it’s f***ed up. He brings his ability to marry black comedy and loveable characters. In another world, Gill is a detestable internet anti-hero troll, but in his hands, he’s a loveable hero who just likes cats and memes. Then there’s Dano, deserving of impossible accolades. He’s on the other side of playing the evil internet crowd rally-er, The Riddler, who this time plays a subdued young family man accomplishing a similar feat. His subtle choices like whisper yelling into his computer mic suggesting that his exuberance need be tamed by the fact his family is upstairs, tells so much of the story with just a simple delivery. He’s stellar at fading into the background as an internet dorkus and a winking troll (he nails that Roaring Kitty intro wink in a wild way).
Other faves make appearances as real people like Seth Rogan as Gabe Plotkin and Sebastian Stan as Vlad Tenev, real life finance villains we got to see uncharacteristically sweat. Though his appearance is limited, Stan gets to again ham it up as a douchebag coming off of his turns as Tommy Lee and Jeff Gillooly. It’s nice to focus on them as they did face some, if nominal, consequences, even though the real ordeal only really just slightly upset the economy as we know it.
This pandemic-era time capsule is on the playing field with The Big Short and Tetris more than it’s battling with The Wolf of Wall Street or The Social Network. It’s a true story of financial bullshit set to banging music and coated in a layer of jokes (Pete Davidson shouting “That’s you, ma!” for awards season). It resists getting tied up in financial exposition and hammering home the true story and instead uses quippy text-based intros and splices in actors with real-life news footage to frame the story and remind us of the real-life stakes, and how funny it was that these finance bros had to choke their ways through congressional proceedings, even if they didn’t amount to much change. It’s a success story built on dude-on-dude crime that uses Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion to score the plucky relentlessness of the average joe with an internet connection and the albeit presently limited power of the organized masses.
Dumb Money played the Toronto International film Festival and will have a limited release on September 15, 2023 and a wide release September 29, 2023