Dumb Money (2023)
You don’t expect to get a period piece set in 2020-21 so soon, but that is exactly what Dumb Money is. The film, from director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Cruella) dramatizes one of the more fascinating apolitical news stories to emerge from the pandemic: the short squeeze of GameStop that set the Internet and the stock market ablaze during the winter in question.
There is clear precedent for Gillespie’s film in The Big Short, Adam McKay’s 2015 comedy about the housing bubble that triggered the 2008 financial crisis. Whereas McKay’s film, the Academy Award winner for Best Adapted Screenplay, had the benefit of some years of perspective, Gillespie’s does not, adapting Ben Mezrich’s book The Antisocial Network that itself was rushed out mere months after everything went down.
At some point, Dumb Money may make you feel nostalgia for those strange times when just about everybody stayed home in an effort to stop the spread of COVID-19. Right now, it simply serves as a reminder for how loony and, for many, miserable life got for Americans clinging to their sanity amidst an enforced lack of socialization.
The screenplay of Dumb Money, written by “Orange Is the New Black” staff writers Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, approaches the GameStop trading frenzy from multiple perspectives. It opens with a number of obvious villains, who are ominously introduced by name and net worth, the latter ranging from hundreds of millions to multiple billions. These are hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), who have been betting big on the video game retailer’s woes and prospering. At the film’s start, Plotkin is on the phone trying to get clarity from construction workers who have been slow to proceed with the demolition he’s ordered of a neighboring house in order to build a private tennis court on the property.
For multimillionaires like Plotkin, the pandemic is less an inconvenience than simply a change of pace. Upon news of GameStop’s stock surge brought upon by individually insignificant retail investors, Plotkin has to field calls from associates far wealthier than himself and connect on Zoom video chats where the loss of billions is treated as a blunder slightly more troubling than dropping a piece of saucy haute cuisine onto white pants.
Gillespie’s film paints the 1% in broad strokes. One of them is described as “a Disney Channel villain” by one of the everyday folks that provide contrast to these affluent titans of industry. I guess we’re meant to relate to and empathize with these salt of the earth types we spend more time watching, but the movie doesn’t do a great job of achieving that. The designated hero of the piece is Keith Gill (Paul Dano), better known as Roaring Kitty, a Redditor and YouTube personality whose investment of $50,000 in GameStop at the end of 2020 is questioned and ridiculed by those who know of it. Gill is supposed to be an endearing man of the people with his basement desktop computer setup, ridiculous cat t-shirts and red headband, signature glass of beer, and low-fi live streams that place him in front of his investment spreadsheets.
Is Gill a socially awkward genius like Christian Bale’s character in The Big Short? Or is he an irresponsible moron as many of those live-commenting on his videos convey in less PC, more Internet terms? There’s a great chance you do not agree with the movie’s answer to that question. But it’s hard to claim that what went down isn’t extremely interesting as nobodies like Gill became multimillionaires overnight once many began investing, somewhat ironically, in a brick and mortar shop whose business model is so clearly antiquated and endangered. The result of those stock buys cost people like Plotkin, or rather the investment firms they ran, billions of dollars.
The story of the short squeeze is inseparable from Internet culture, specifically Reddit, a place where intelligence, irony, youth, antisocial tendencies, desensitized senses of humor, self-deprecation, and snark come together to create a sometimes toxic, usually absorbing forum of expression distinct to the 21st century. Whereas McKay laid in a Gorillaz song or Funny or Die clip to simply establish the time period, Gillespie embraces today’s culture wholeheartedly, repeatedly filling the screen with little TikTok videos, memes, and shitposts while insufferable contemporary music by the likes of Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion flares. If those corners of the Internet are not part of your everyday routine, you’re likely to find Dumb Money incredibly obnoxious and grating. If they are, then you’re probably too cool to watch a mainstream movie made by and for “normies.”
Dumb Money has enough substance and style that make it impossible to ignore, but also difficult to love. You can count on two fingers the number of characters you encounter here that you can unequivocally admire and appreciate: Shailene Woodley as Gill’s supportive but unsure wife Caroline and Oliva Thirlby (in her comeback year) as Plotkin’s supportive but unsure wife. Neither is given much screentime or depth, but they approach the life-changing situation with calm and caution. Everyone else is pretty much an asshole about it, from Gill dipping his chicken “tendies” into champagne to a lesbian couple of college students who won’t make a move unless Roaring Kitty does to a broke single mother nurse (America Ferrara) who similarly lacks common sense when facing a golden opportunity to significantly better her family’s situation.
It’s extremely tough for a major studio to make a movie about issues like the great wealth divide and have moviegoers take it seriously. Type in any of the leading actors’ names into your search engine of choice followed by the words “net worth” and even if you’re not surprised or bewildered, you’re probably at least a touch envious. Think of how insignificant the cost of renewing your license plate tabs or shipping a gift to a friend would be if you had Seth Rogen’s $80 million, Paul Dano’s $14 million, or screenwriter Schuker Blum’s (her husband is Blumhouse founder/CEO Jason Blum) $200 million. It’s impossible for it not to feel patronizing and out of touch for set-for-life celebrities to embrace working class sentiment or have a go at slightly more detached tycoons. But what is the alternative? This same movie made by struggling up-and-comers would book a dribble of theaters and reach a tiny fraction of the audience this will have. Should professional success invalidate the social views of actors and filmmakers who care enough to have and voice them?
Such thoughts did not arise over The Big Short, a far better and more savory film that holds up after eight years. Nor did they materialize around The Social Network, whose real-life Winkelvii twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss that Armie Hammer played puzzlingly executive produced this movie, and which seems inevitably to have been another inspiration.
Dumb Money is not quite the rousing crowd-pleaser it wants to be and it probably won’t be the kind of Oscar powerhouse that the two aforementioned movies proved to be. But it does succeed at making you think about the rampant inequalities that pervade and plague modern existence.
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