Dumb Money is a smart, darkly comic retelling of the GameStop short squeeze saga of 2021. Craig Gillespie’s film rips out the sickly, shrivelled heart of American capitalism and parades it around for all to see – only to then change its mind, shove that heart right back into its cavity, and slap a vapid, tech bro-speak Band-Aid over the wound.
It’s a contradiction that is, regrettably, quite easily explained: the movie was executive produced by investor twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, of The Social Network fame, who’ve since leaped on to the bitcoin bandwagon as they continue to slather their establishment profiles with the glossy sheen of disruption and subversion. In short, they’re the villains of Dumb Money, yet are convinced they’re the heroes.
In January 2021, users on the social network site Reddit – and specifically the “subreddit” r/wallstreetbets, which merged memes and stock market analysis – suddenly began buying up large numbers of shares in the waning video game retailer, GameStop. The intention was to trigger a short squeeze, since hedge fund company Melvin Capital, and its founder Gabe Plotkin (here played by Seth Rogen), had engaged in a practice known as “short selling”. Since I’ve been robbed of The Big Short’s ability to cut to Margot Robbie explaining it all while taking a bath, let me skip to the point – Plotkin profited if GameStop’s shares fell. Here, though, Reddit users artificially drove up GameStop’s value and pushed Melvin Capital to the brink of bankruptcy.
The focus on GameStop was largely inspired by Keith Gill (Paul Dano), aka YouTuber “Roaring Kitty”, who had already invested $53,000 into the company, convinced that it was an undervalued stock. At the height of the subsequent short squeeze, Gill’s investment was worth $48m. It’s a niche, but fairly wild story that immediately captured the interest of half of Hollywood’s studios. Dumb Money is the first narrative feature out of the gate – developed, written, shot and released within a two-year turnaround, and based on the nonfiction book by The Social Network’s own Ben Mezrich, titled, tellingly, The Antisocial Network.
The film is almost unnervingly contemporary, featuring, among the many cultural markers of our time, a Penguins of Madagascar meme, the TikTok dance to Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage”, and Pete Davidson (playing Gill’s brother, Kevin), claiming that his work as DoorDash driver makes him a “first responder” during the pandemic. But Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum’s script puts purpose to all this overstimulation. At the centre of the noise is a counterfeit revolution, a movement convinced that it’s breaking the system when, really, it’s only playing the system for individual gain.
Dumb Money introduces us to a few of these self-labelled “warriors”, fictionalised versions of the real people featured in Mezrich’s book: a Pittsburgh nurse (America Ferrera), a GameStop cashier (Anthony Ramos), and two college students (Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold). All of them are strapped for cash or flat-out broke, and desperate for community, in those early, post-lockdown days of the pandemic. And Gill, perfectly brought to life by the mellow and infinitely likeable Dano, turns out to be the ideal figure to rally around. His daily, on-camera uniform consists of a tie-dye cat shirt and a red hachimaki wrapped around his head. He refers to chicken tenders as “tendies”. He’s a ray of earnestness in the cynical dark.
Director Craig Gillespie’s work – I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl, and, sure, even Cruella – has largely remained honest about its subjects, yet refreshingly free of judgement. Dumb Money is no different. It’s deeply sympathetic towards these people, who are only trying to claw their way out of a trap. It also leaves its own breadcrumb trail of warnings that suggest the community they’ve invested in may not be their salvation. And, yet, despite a number of key revelations that seem to prove any victory here was an entirely hollow one, Dumb Money’s closing titles insist the opposite is true. All is well, supposedly, and what we’re witnessing are the “beginnings of a movement”. But when it’s so unclear as to who actually profited from all of this in the long term, it’s hard not to get suspicious.
Dir: Craig Gillespie. Starring: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Seth Rogen, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Shailene Woodley, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Talia Ryder, Myha’la Herrold. 15, 104 minutes.
‘Dumb Money’ is in cinemas from 22 September