One of the things that cheered me up in those dark days of January 2021 was the news about the GameStop stock. A number of prominent hedge funds had shorted the video game retailer’s stock (i.e., bet large amounts of money that the company would go bankrupt), so in response, an army of small investors bought stock in GameStop (and also AMC Theatres, Nokia, and other brands with sentimental loyalty) to artificially inflate the price and make the hedge funds hemorrhage money, eventually cratering a $13 billion hedge fund. This week, Dumb Money opens in a couple of Tarrant County multiplexes, and it lets us relive those pandemic days when some clever troublemakers brought new meaning to the term “activist investor.”
The story picks up in the summer of 2020, with everything in lockdown and the world’s economy in freefall. In Brockton, Mass., Keith Gill (Paul Dano) is a humble financial analyst for MassMutual by day, but at night he assumes the name Roaring Kitty and posts cat-themed YouTube videos about the stock market. In one of these, he discusses GameStop and why he has invested $53,000 — more than half his net worth — in the video game chain. Persuaded to risk their hard-won cash as well are Jenny (America Ferrera), a Pittsburgh hospital nurse on the frontlines of the pandemic; Marcus (Anthony Ramos), a sales clerk at a GameStop location; and Harmony and Riri (Talia Ryder and Myha’la), a lesbian couple of UT students whose college loans have left them both in six-figure debt. Big-time Wall Street guys like Melvin Capital CEO Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) calls these people the “dumb money,” since they’re amateurs with small amounts of capital. The dumb money is about to outsmart him in a very public and amusing way.
This is based on The Antisocial Network, Ben Mezrich’s book about the market phenomenon that followed up his Facebook history that became The Social Network. While the characters of the main investors are based on real people, Keith’s followers are composites made up for the movie. Not only is Mezrich an executive producer on this film, so are the Winklevoss twins who were portrayed by Armie Hammer in The Social Network. I’m afraid you’ll have to read the book or watch the Hulu documentary GameStop: The Rise of the Players to find out the very solid reasons why Gill thought the stock was undervalued. On the other hand, the movie does show us Marcus being burdened by corporate directives that tell him to sell used games instead of new ones. It helps illustrate why the smart money thought the Grapevine-based retailer was going under.
Director Craig Gillespie (of I, Tonya and Cruella) relies rather too much on the rah-rah David-and-Goliath aspect of this story, as all the GameStop investors have people around them to tell them that they’re insane. He also overuses internet-generated content to convey how the meme stock is playing in the wider world. Maybe most grievous is that the villains aren’t interesting. If they had been, and if we had a sense of why the system encouraged them to act as they did, this movie might have been the scathing critique of capitalism that the filmmakers were aiming for.
Considering the wealth of comic talent in the cast, it’s rather stunning that the movie isn’t funnier. The only consistent source of laughs is Pete Davidson as Keith’s stoner brother Kevin, a Doordash driver who eats most of the food he’s supposed to deliver. (Casting Dano and Davidson as brothers is one of those things that seems like it shouldn’t work on paper and yet sort of does in front of the cameras.) After stock-trading platform Robinhood freezes GameStop stock purchases, we see Robinhood CEO Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) get dunked on by the weird, weird duo of Elon Musk and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They appear in the film via archival news footage, but the entertainment value comes from Stan smiling weakly under the grilling. This actor is often cast in bland, heroic roles, but Gillespie has him play guys who are wormy and ineffectual, and it may be the best thing Stan does as an actor.
The best thing here, though, is Dano. I’ve remarked before about his propensity for playing deviants and criminals, but here he’s just an ordinary guy (albeit one with odd obsessions with cats and chicken tenders) who sees how the system is rigged. When he spots a chance to turn the tables, he tells his followers about it and accidentally on purpose upends the market. Dano shows he can excel in an unshowy role, as Keith is taken aback by what he starts and agonizes over when to sell his shares, knowing that doing so will trigger his followers to do the same. In an overwhelming situation, Keith does not panic and testifies remotely before Congress about the much-needed correction that the market just received. His willingness to share his discovery and help other working stiffs make their own windfalls is the rousing thing about Dumb Money.
Starring Paul Dano and Pete Davidson. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, based on Ben Mezrich’s book. Rated R.