When the audience first meets Gabe Plotkin in Dumb Money, he’s buying a mansion. Not only is he buying a mansion, he’s berating the realtor on the other end of the call. As played by Seth Rogen to maximize every bit of Plotkin’s instant punchability, it’s easy to see why the members of the Reddit community /WallStreetBets want to burn down everything he stands for. Then—and this is all within the first two minutes of Dumb Money—Plotkin reveals that he wants the mansion ASAP so he can tear it down to build a tennis court. This guy’s a prime contender for villain of the year, and a point around which every viewer frustrated with the status quo will love to hate.
Dumb Money recounts the epic victory in which the little guys hit Wall Street where it hurts hardest: the wallet. Directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) and adapted by screenwriters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo from the book The Anti-Social Network by Ben Mezrich, Dumb Money is a zany ripped-from-the-headlines tale about how a group of everyday people rallied on Reddit, played the stock market, and beat Wall Street at its own rigged game. Add to the too-wild-to-believe novelty the mastermind behind it. Keith Gill (Paul Dano) has a ho-hum finance job but finds his calling as a YouTuber/Redditer in his basement. Posting videos laden with cat memes and Reddit threads bolstering his balance sheets, Keith (aka “Roaring Kitty”) advises readers how to maximize #DeepFuckingValue while sipping a crappy beer in his basement. He’s an unlikely David to Wall Street’s Goliath.
It’s essential, though, that Keith’s a total nerd. His big bet hinges on GameStop. Yes, that anachronistic video game store in the mall. As Keith simply says, “I like the stock.”
The Nickel Bet Crowd
One could use the word count of a book just to set the context for Dumb Money. It’s the pandemic, people are stuck at home, they’re angry, and there’s an appetite for change. But the “stuck at home” part is also key. Some people make bread to pass the time. Others trade stocks on an app called Robin Hood. These dollar bet traders are what folks like Plotkin call “dumb money.” To Wall Street, everyday people are simply fools throwing money to the house.
But what Plotkin and company didn’t anticipate at the time was the ability for “dumb money” to outsmart the house. A mix of anger and intuition fuels the online community that notices Keith’s faith in GameStop. In short, people take notice because he’s betting big on a failing brand. Keith, however, argues that GameStop is under-valued. But its presumed failure, which people assume to worsen as virtual gaming becomes popular during lockdowns, means traders like Plotkin are shorting the stock. Basically, they’re investing in its failure by borrowing cheap stocks with hopes to cash in by buying back and returning those shares once the value’s even lower.
One can see Dumb Money and read the book and still have little grasp for how the stock market works. (Having done both, I still don’t get it.) But the film isn’t a “how to.” Much like the Oscar winning The Big Short, Dumb Money is a riotous middle finger to the capitalist swine of Wall Street. The adaptation similarly fires a rat-a-tat-tat arsenal of snappy zingers and spot-on observations about the broken system that perpetuates greed for few at the expense of many.
An A-Grade Ensemble
Where The Big Short mostly tells the stories of the suits, Dumb Money offers a human portrait of everyday people. The film finds great foes in Robin Hood app creators Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota) who abandon their disruptor philosophy when /WallStreetBets, while Nick Offerman is drolly arrogant as blow-hard billionaire Ken Griffin. The film admittedly downplays the role that Elon Musk had—namely, Tweeting “Gamestonk!!” [sic] with a link to the Reddit, which made the gamble go nuclear. But one can forgive the writers for favouring the little guys.
The sprawling, if excellent, cast observes hard-hit people who play the market like a semi-informed lottery bet. There’s Jenny (America Ferrera) a nurse and single mom. She hopes that Keith’s advice will help her escape debt and afford braces for her son. But colleagues raise eyebrows over the trust she puts in financial advice from a guy named “Roaring Kitty.” The crass culture of /WallStreetBets, meanwhile, makes observers skeptical with its culture of juvenile memes and politically incorrect language. These guys proudly call themselves “apes” and “retards” while chasing “stonk.” But folks like Jenny with a hunger to eat the rich find a family here.
So too do students Riri (Myhal’la Herrold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder). The university students, gender-flipped from the book, watch their phones with anxiety. Roaring Kitty’s advice can cover their student debt. Their story, like Jenny’s, becomes an anxiety-inducing roller coaster as Dumb Money illustrates the huge losses that go alongside big bets. As Wall Street notices of GameStop’s volatile stock, firms rally with hopes to buy back their stock to avoid losing billions. But united by Keith’s unshakable—and so far correct—faith in the stock, Redditers hold strong with “diamond hands.” If he holds, they hold.
A COVID-19 Period Film?
Placing a bet on a COVID-era period piece while the pandemic still trudges along is a big gamble itself. However, as with the Kitty’s roar, Dumb Money bets big and wins big. This is a sharply entertaining comedy that captures a moment in time unlike no drama of the COVID years has yet. By now, the filmmakers aren’t simply dealing with COVID protocols and masking to get the production done. They’ve lived through the nuisance of masking and the politics of masking. Nose-covering etiquette is familiar parlance here. But it’s also a droll signal of GameStop’s old-school style, for example, when mall store employee Marcus (Anthony Ramos) constantly gets greeted with a tap on the nose by his supervisor (Dane DeHaan). Audiences can see why Wall Street traders perceive the store as a dying animal.
The film also finds its heart in the collective trauma of the COVID years. For Jenny, being a frontline worker often receives praise, but she scrapes by. Everyone in the /WallStreetBets crew is united by a hunger for an alternative, but they face the grim reality that no great reset will happen and that 2020 is just 2008 with masks. The film also finds a relatable everyman in Dano’s Keith. He’s humble and modest, an unassuming everyman driven by a hunger for a level playing field. Dano finds a great screen partner in Pete Davidson, who proves a consistent scene-stealer as Keith’s goofball brother.
With high energy that never lets up and a soundtrack rife with needle drops and bangers, Gillespie makes a revitalizing satire. Dumb Money will have audiences laughing, but equally inspired and riled up. It’s a film of the moment, for the moment—but also just a hugely entertaining film.