Director Craig Gillespie won my heart with I, Tonya, his scathing 2017 film about the quintessentially American life of skater Tonya Harding. In demonstrating how to redeem the degraded biopic genre, I, Tonya was so brilliant, I even forgave Gillespie for his subsequent film, the bloated Disney reboot Cruella (2021). He quickly rebounded, directing the first three episodes of the surprisingly insightful Hulu series Pam & Tommy (2022). He always does great work when he’s back on his turf — sharp satirical takes on the lives of working-class Americans who become celebrities, however minor, and however briefly, thereby getting a class-conscious range of grotesque cultural experience that’s eye-opening.
And now he’s back in top form once again with the endearingly funny biographical comedy drama Dumb Money, currently playing at a theater near you. The screenplay by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo was based on the 2021 nonfiction book by Ben Mezrich, The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees.
“Dumb money,” as the movie tells us in one of its explanatory title cards, is the scornful phrase used by big investment firm traders in describing “retail investors,” the regular individuals who risk their little savings on the stock market. The sneering contempt of the haves for the have-nots is the context for the movie, which is about how one adorkable real-life small trader named Keith Gill, working out of his basement during the COVID epidemic, defied the odds by investing and encouraging his online followers to invest in GameStop, a company “shorted” by hedge fund managers who expected the company to fail. Here’s what that means:
Basically, this means that an investor borrows the stock, sells it on the open market, waits for the price to fall, then buys it back at the lower price and pockets the difference after repaying interest on the initial loan (stock that they borrowed).
Paul Dano has never given a more appealing performance than this one, playing the nerdy longhaired Keith Gill aka Roaring Kitty, his online handle in his YouTube videos, in which he wears assorted cat T-shirts along with a hilarious Rambo-style red headband that we see him ritually tie onto his forehead before logging on. Based on his own research, he’s decided that GameStop stock is actually undervalued, and he invests his little family’s entire savings.
Soon he becomes the unlikely David vs Goliath leader of an online movement, via YouTube and Reddit, that causes the GameStop stock to soar, eventually destabilizing the stock market and destroying at least one large investment firm. Gill’s plainspoken endorsement of GameStop, “I like the stock,” becomes a catchphrase that he uses with modest defiance later on when he’s forced to appear before Congress at the climactic point of the film to defend the role he played in the 2021 “short squeeze” that led to a Wall Street panic.
The film’s whole ensemble cast is terrific, with never-better performances by America Ferraro as nurse and dedicated GameStop investor Jennifer Campbell; Pete Davidson in his ideal role as Kevin, Keith’s incorrigible, near-feral brother; Shailene Woodley as Keith’s practical wife Caroline Gill; and Anthony Ramos as Marcos, a quietly mutinous GameStop store clerk and stockholder. In the roles of the billionaire bastards are Seth Rogen as Gabe Plotkin, CEO of Melvin Capital Management; Vincent D’Onofrio as Steve Cohen, hedge fund manager and owner of the New York Mets; Nick Offerman as Kenneth C. Griffin, Citadel hedge fund manager; and longtime Gillespie favorite Sebastian Stan as Vlad Tenev, CEO and cofounder of stock trading company Robinhood, along with Baiju Bhatt, played by Rushi Kota.
Almost all the people represented in the film are drawn painstakingly from real life, as the film demonstrates with footage of many of them at the end. The exceptions are the band of investors who follow Roaring Kitty and are meant to represent the rebellious hordes of small investors who bought GameStop stock, driving up the price, and refusing to sell even when they could each make tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars they desperately need. Their stubborn belief in Keith Gill is summed up Jennifer Campbell’s phrase, “If he’s in, I’m in.”
There’s a white-knuckle depiction of Gill refusing to sell even during the most high-tension period of time when to do so would make him a multimillionaire, and his family and friends — and no doubt, many economically suffering audience members — are urging him to do it. And inevitably the pressure is ratcheted up to stroke-inducing levels by Wall Street dirty tricks, changing the rules of the game in order to force Gill and his followers out of the privileged world of “stonks.”
This is the best “COVID movie” I’ve seen, the only one with a useful take on what the pandemic was like for most people. Basically, it was a deadly crisis thrown on top of lives already burdened by regular crises, that just had to be absorbed and managed as part of tough everyday existence, with no serious help or guidance from the government or any of its services. In the midst of grueling work, crippling financial worry, struggles to get childcare, and a variety of grim living situations, people are also masking up, enduring lockdown, getting their nostrils painfully swabbed for lab testing, and in some cases, losing loved ones. Keith Gill’s family is shown mourning the recent death of his sister Sarah, though it’s not clear if COVID was the cause.
And nurse Jennifer Campbell is depicted caring for patients in an overcrowded hospital typical of the COVID era. Campbell rants at a certain point about getting a measly $600 from a government that then turns around and bails out failing multibillion-dollar investment firms because their vampire capitalist plan to drain GameStop dry didn’t work out as planned.
Ironically, by not foregrounding the COVID crisis as other films dealing with the topic have tended to do, Dumb Money captures that mad sense of having to struggle on as if no public health crisis were happening, which characterized the experience of most people. The insanity of our era is summed up there — we’re just going to ignore ever-huger catastrophes, forced to continue to work and pay bills, if we can, right up to the actual apocalypse.