Movies about the financial markets inevitably have the same problem. It simply isn’t that visually compelling watching people stare at their computers or phones and muttering expletives. Adam McKay’s The Big Short managed to avoid the pitfall thanks to its truly memorable characters and such stylistic flourishes as having Margot Robbie explain complicated financial concepts directly to the camera while lounging in a bathtub.
Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money, about the 2021 GameStop stock phenomenon fueled by individual investors driven by social media, doesn’t prove quite as successful. Nonetheless, the film receiving its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival proves entertaining enough, thanks to its canny screenplay relating the story as a Frank Capra-style battle between the little people and the rich bigwigs hoisted by their own petards, and the fun performances by a terrific ensemble.
The Bottom Line
Smart filmmaking, as far as it goes.
Based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Antisocial Network (fun fact: among the film’s producers are Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, whom you’ll remember from The Social Network), Dumb Money revolves around Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a small-time financial analyst who precipitated the events with his YouTube videos as “Roaring Kitty” and his Reddit postings under the username “DeepFuckingValue” touting GameStop stock. The notion seemed entirely counterintuitive, since the video game retailer was losing money hand over foot and its rapidly declining stock had been shorted by numerous hedge funds, including Melvin Capital head Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen, playing somewhat against type).
Gill’s enthusiastic cheerleading for the stock struck a chord among small investors, who poured money into it to such an extent that it began rising dramatically. Very dramatically, with Gill’s original $53,000 investment, representing most of his life savings, quickly escalating to $11 million. And it didn’t stop there, with every rising valuation of the GameStop shares resulting in joy among the new investors and severe agita among such financial titans as Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio), Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) and Vlad Temev (Sebastian Stan), whose trading app Robinhood played a pivotal role.
The film shifts its focus among: Gill and his family, including his supportive wife (Shailene Woodley), underachieving brother (Pete Davidson, scoring big laughs) and thoroughly befuddled parents (Kate Burton, Clancy Brown); the rich Wall Street guys eyeing the rapidly changing developments with disbelief and horror; and several of the small-time investors riding the wave and desperately trying to figure out if and when they should sell. The last group includes a single-mother nurse (America Ferrera) struggling financially, a pair of college students (Myha’la Herrold, Talia Ryder) buried under debt, and a retail GameStop employee (Anthony Ramos) who still believes in the product.
It’s a complicated story, mostly told with clarity — if inevitably simplified — with the filmmaker doing his best to enliven the proceedings with such stylistic devices as onscreen graphics detailing the net worth of the major characters (some of the investors are in the negative range). He also makes liberal use of television news clips featuring such recognizable faces as Jim Cramer and Andrew Ross Sorkin, as well as Stephen Colbert talking about the phenomenon in his own inimitable style. When Gill and the hedge fund billionaires are forced to testify before Congress (remotely, as the film’s events take place during the height of the COVID crisis), we see such real-life politicians as Maxine Waters and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez intercut with the actors.
One of the film’s problems is that, with the exception of Gill and his brother, whose combative but loving relationship is amusingly depicted, the film’s characters remain mostly one-dimensional, reacting to the stock’s ups and downs with either joy or despair, and usually surprise. A lengthy montage featuring each of them staring at their respective screens and loudly uttering “Holy fuck!” typifies the approach, and despite the film’s fast pacing and rapid-fire editing it eventually wears thin.
Nonetheless, it’s a compelling story told in largely engaging fashion, anchored by Dano’s terrific turn as the eccentric, strong-willed Gill, who becomes an unlikely folk hero. Dumb Money (the title refers to the funds invested in the market by individual investors) should strike a chord with people fascinated by the financial world, which seems pretty much everyone these days. As no less an esteemed figure than Anthony Scaramucci puts it in one of the clips shown, this chain of events was “the French Revolution of finance,” and it’s fun watching the peasants win for a change.
Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Gala Presentations)
Production: Stage 6 Films, Black Bear, Ryder Picture Company, Winklevoss Pictures
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley, Seth Rogen
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriters: Lauren Schuker Blum, Rebecca Angelo
Producers: Aaron Ryder, Teddy Schwarzman, Craig Gillespie
Executive producers: Michael Heimler, John Friedberg, Johnny Holland, Ben Mezrich, Lauren Schuker Blum, Andrew Swett, Rebecca Angelo, Kevin Ulrich, Cameron Winklevoss, Tyler Winkevoss
Director of photography: Nicolas Karakatsanis
Production designer: Scott Kuzio
Editor: Kirk Baxter
Composer: Will Bates
Costume designer: Kameron Lennox
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Bret Howe
1 hour 44 minutes