Dumb Money

Dumb Money: An Exercise In Truth, Lies and Storytelling

When Craig Gillespie appeared at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) to present Dumb Money, he emphasized his personal connection to the story: His son was one of those young men on Reddit posting chimp memes about GameStop “stonks.” Dumb Money is, on that level, an honest and truthful film about an admittedly recent pop culture phenomenon that irrevocably changed how Wall Street hedge fund managers operate.

At the same time, Dumb Money is a fictionalized feel-good account of a major economic upset from a time when the global economy was destabilized by the pandemic. The film is based on the non-fiction book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich, which was published just months after the events it described occurred, and was met with criticism for sensationalizing the already-sensationalized story of Redditors “taking down” Wall Street.

Dumb Money premiered at TIFF, followed by a limited and then wider theatrical release throughout September. Like its subject matter, the rollout feels …fast. Just last year, Netflix released Eat the Rich: The GameStop Saga, while MSNBC produced a competing doc, Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets. (Elizabeth Lopatto described both as feeling “rushed” and “trying to capitalize on attention while it was still there.”)

Dumb Money is both too early and too late. This rapid-fire production cycle of viral story, documentary treatment, and then a feature-length “based on a true story” iteration results in a hastily constructed foundation—one with cracks too severe for a surface-level fix.

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Dumb Money: A Tale of Two Robin Hoods

Dumb Money

In Dumb Money, the narrative focalizes on Keith Gill (Paul Dano), the real-life charismatic influencer who led the GameStop stock rebellion. Gill was a major player in the GameStop short squeeze story; his posts on Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets under username DFV (I don’t think I can write out the full name here), as well as his social media following on YouTube and Twitter as Roaring Kitty, drove the community’s interest (and investment in) GameStop stocks. He was a Chartered Financial Analyst and licensed securities broker—although he wasn’t giving professional financial advice, just pursuing a fun passion/hobby.

There are two Robin Hoods in Dumb Money: there’s loveable Gill, a down-on-his-luck new father who believes in GameStop stock so much he’d risk his meager life savings for it; and there’s Robinhood, the app that lets anyone develop their own investment portfolio, with all the dopamine-triggering game elements we’ve come to expect from our mobile devices. The commission-free trading of stocks, all from the push of a button, made the stock market accessible in ways it never had been before. In short, the GameStop short squeeze almost certainly would not have happened if it wasn’t for Robinhood.

The Robinhood app was steeped in controversy even before the GameStop short squeeze. The company faced massive fines from regulators for misleading customers, system outages, and other harmful conduct. Although Dumb Money definitely frames the app’s founders Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota) as flawed (Vlad in particular comes off as a foolish jackass), the film doesn’t really delve into the problems with the app itself. Critics have pointed to the app’s playful interface and push notifications as encouraging gambling, and the high-risk trading on Robinhood has had devastating ramifications for some.

A chimp on his shoulder

Dumb Money stream

Dumb Money arguably overplays Gill’s role in the whole GameStonk movement, making him a sort of folk hero for the everyman. Dano leans into the character’s inherent charm as an underdog; he’s the valiant general, bravely rallying his troop of misfits against the American Elite. His devout followers are more committed to following his “diamond hands” example than making a fortune, and Gillespie makes sure to paint these investors in the most flattering possible light. Obviously, this is an exaggeration for narrative effect; in reality, there were multiple people, and multiple factors, that contributed to the phenomenon. Elon Musk is a major name in the story (although I’m getting ahead of myself).

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The Reddit army on r/wallstreetbets are given a similar cinematic makeover. Although the film doesn’t shy away from the forum’s crass language (there were far too many “r” slurs than necessary included here), Gillespie largely celebrates the community. Every character who invests comes across as charming and likable, while every Wall Street fund manager is a detestable wealth monster. Fun chimpanzee meme montages capture the heady, chaotic spirit of the movement. The film gets so swept up in the joy and excitement that it completely forgets what was on the line.

GameStop stock was a gamble—and many lost

Dumb Money Seth Rogen

The creative choices made in Dumb Money present a very shallow interpretation of the story, one where the Redditors won and the “evil” Melvin Capitol lost. GameStop’s “success” in the stock market—at its highest soaring to over hundreds of dollars per share—hasn’t translated to a healthy business, and there have been store closures and layoffs in the years since. Elon Musk tweeting “Gamestonk!!” is addressed briefly and mainly played for laughs in Dumb Money, but in real life, that post really brought virality to the movement, encouraging more people to drop their life savings to buy the stock.

What’s more, the film effaces the very formulations that underly the “meme stock” rise. That money didn’t materialize from thin air—it came from the hedge fund losses and people who bought when the stock was high. Sure, it’s easy to hate Gabe Plotkin (played by Seth Rogen) for being a rich asshole, but what about the people who trusted Melvin Capitol? Or the many people who followed the trend and bought in stocks, only for them to tumble shortly thereafter?

Dumb Money would have the viewer believe that in January 2021, while the world was reeling from the global pandemic, a group of lovable weirdos banded together and thwarted Capitalist Evil via a short squeeze. This is sort of true—GameStop’s stock was unusually shorted, and that proved to be disastrous for Melvin Capital when the stock rose in price. As a result of the squeeze, traders will (presumably) be less willing to short stocks like this in the future.

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It is also true that many private investors lost money on the GameStop stock. As Catherine Rampell wrote in The Washington Post back in February 2021:

Much of the public discourse about this story has been inane, celebrating a supposed “democratization” of financial gambling and the noble populist rebellion blowing up Wall Street. If these populists are blowing up Wall Street, they’re delivering the blast via suicide bomb. Regular, everyday people will lose their shirts because of some misguided narrative about “punishing” hedge funds that may, instead, end up making money.

In conclusion…

Dumb Money works precisely because Gillespie departs from history.  That Shelf’s Pat Mullen characterizes Dumb Money as “a film of the moment, for the moment—but also just a hugely entertaining film.” This is a satire that leaves a mark; it’s equal parts hilarious and hard-hitting. The story is tight, easy to follow, and inspirational. In other words, it might not be an accurate representation of the events, but it’s a darn good movie.

Dumb Money is in theatres now.



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