Dumb Money (R) ★★★

Review Date: September 25th, 2023

Dumb Money is many things but one thing it isn't is "dumb." An engagingly lighthearted rags-to-riches romp with a David vs. Goliath element, the movie uses its real-life basis to formulate a modern day fairy tale. It's easy to criticize the film for what it is not - and, considering the complexity of the underlying circumstances and the artificially upbeat ending, the movie deviates significantly from the facts of the story. But if one takes a step back and looks at Dumb Money as a smartly satirical fable, it works admirably well, despite trying a little too hard to emulate what Adam McKay did better in his 2015 feature, The Big Short.

One downside of making a movie about events that happened so recently (the timeline spans a period from mid-2020 until early 2021) is that many viewers will remember the beginning, middle, and end from how it played out on the nightly news. As a result, the filmmakers opted not to present this as a hard-hitting drama but a comedic one that hones in on the irony of the situation and satirizes the fat cats who are oblivious. The corporation at the center of all the stock market shenanigans, mall game store GameStop, is almost irrelevant.

The unlikely hero is Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a socially awkward type who lives in a small house with his devoted wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), and baby daughter. He is obsessive about two hobbies: running track-and-field and posting about stock tips to his YouTube Channel under the moniker of "Roaring Kitty." When he starts advocating the virtues of GameStop, into which he has sunk his entire savings of $53,000, a few people listen. Then, a few more. And so on... It doesn't take long before the stock price has doubled, then tripled, then doubled again. Pretty soon, Keith is rich, at least on paper. Then, in February 2021, after Keith has become a millionaire, the "holy fucking shit" moment happens. The hedge fund managers take notice. One of them, Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), takes a multibillion-dollar loss. Others - future New York Mets owner Steve Cohen (Vincent D'Onofrio) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), the founder of Citadel Securities - are befuddled. And the crew on Reddit that have orchestrated the uprising rejoice.

By including the stories of a variety of "normal" investors (all of whom are largely fictionalized) - Jenny (America Ferrera), a hard-working nurse; Riri (Myha'la) and Harmony (Talia Ryder), lesbian students; and Marcus (Anthony Ramos), a Gamestop employee - Gillespie and screenwriters Lauren Schuker Blum & Rebecca Angelo expand the canvas. The attempt is uneven. It illustrates something of the appeal of joining the movement but none of the characters has enough screen time or a sufficiently compelling story to fully justify their inclusion into a larger narrative that's really about Keith and the Wall Street tycoons.

In The Big Short, McKay did a good job of distilling complicated Wall Street concepts into easily digestible ideas. By no means did viewers gain a complete understanding of what these meant but the level of discernment was sufficient. In Dumb Money, Craig Gillespie tries something similar but comes up short (no pun intended). He throws out a lot of terms but fails to explain them. For example, although we learn that "short selling" means that Wall Street is betting against a company, the mechanisms of why or how this works are nebulous. But perhaps the point is that we (the viewers) don't have to understand it as long as the characters do.

Paul Dano, who has made a career of playing oddballs, finds another character to fit into his stable. Although his physical resemblance to the real Keith Gill is imperfect, Dano spent long hours watching all of Gill's YouTube videos, which allows him to do a solid recreation of the man. Since few actors do clueless befuddlement better than Seth Rogen, he makes for a good Gabe Plotkin, who might have been a villain if he wasn't so inept.

Dumb Money burnishes a story that's not nearly as optimistic as the movie would lead us to believe. Although it's true that underdog investors had their moment with GameStop, it was just that - a moment. The stock has come down from its stratospheric levels, the government did nothing, and Keith Gill has vanished into self-imposed obscurity. The movie would like us to accept that something has changed but, if it has, it's not systemic. On the other hand, one doesn't go to a movie like this to be educated or depressed. Gillespie channels his righteous indignation into 100+ minutes of entertainment. In this version of events, the good guys triumph (mostly), the bad guy gets his comeuppance (mostly), and the audience gets to laugh along. It's not a bad way to spend a couple of hours, keeping in mind that this fairy tale, like most, has only a tenuous link to reality.

© 2023 James Berardinelli