We all weathered through the worst of the pandemic in different ways. For many, the common link holding everyone’s sanity in check while in lockdown was a simple TikTok rabbit hole. Some days you’d have simple-minded entertainment, others valuable or spirited viewpoints. And occasionally, there’d be the jubilation of excited Gen Z’ers taking part in a modern socialist revolution by playing the stock game and treating it like Vegas blackjack. Such is the case with Dumb Money, a dramatized reinterpretation from all sides of the GameStop meme stock phenomenon. Everyday folk inciting a meteoric rise to change the monetary climate, challenged by ebbs and flows of Wall Street meddling.
Director Craig Gillespie has always kept a fair knack for capturing snapshots of a certain cultural zeitgeist, in either past or present tense, factual or fictitious. And yes, the same rang true for Cruella, a decadent display of inter-office politics in 60s fashion. Here, he’s fashioning a deliberate time capsule of just where the world was in the back half of 2020. Where baby steps were the only path toward reopening. And where the internet was a lifeline to staying entertained, engaged, often distracted, and above all informed. The last two go together, as just about everyone was hurting financially, and keeping an eye on ways to build up income, including nurturing a healthy stock portfolio.
Keeping the sharpest watch on that concept is Keith Gill (Paul Dano). By day, a registered broker with MassMutual in Boston; by night, a recreational YouTuber with the handle RoaringKitty going live nightly with stock tips. All while maintaining family order with brother Kevin (a laughably outspoken Pete Davidson), wife Caroline (a rocksteady Shailene Woodley), and their newborn son. Through his streams and a regular presence on the subreddit “Wall Street Bets”, his expertise is like manna to those who chime in, spoiled milk to the hedge funders looking to avoid a dramatic incident, like what happened with the GameStop short squeeze.
The video game retail chain had seen its fortunes dwindle for years due to lowering sales and heightening turnover. The price declined to a nominal value, and most shares were momentarily open to buy. The average joe could take advantage while the climate was calm, and reap the benefits as value leaped – nay, vaulted – higher and higher, and out of control. The likes of Gillespie’s key subjects – Keith and Caroline, hospital nurse Jennifer (America Ferrera), college roomies Riri and Harmony (Myha’la Herrold, Talia Ryder), and jaded GameStop store clerk Marcus (Anthony Ramos) all have their reasons for buying in the long term, not out of greed but of resolution. The stock sellers, Baiju and Vlad (Rushi Kota, Sebastian Stan), are the low-key gangsters playing neutral while still fishing for their share. And the hedgers – Steve (Vincent D’Onofrio), Gabe (Seth Rogen), and Kenneth (Nick Offerman) – are anxious yet tactful to realign the market before a spiral. Or in Keith’s case, a regulatory witch-hunt.
Gillespie, aided by Lauren Schuker Blum & Lauren Angelo’s (scribes on Orange is the New Black) script, in turn, adapted from Ben Mezrich’s page-turner The Antisocial Network, is admittedly in a delicate position. He’s balancing a dense collective of plotlines that would’ve made a better miniseries than a singular feature film running fast and tight, with both scenarios and factual detail. The latter certainly runs an untamable gamut, often showing net worths in the same frame as empty malls or a Miami mansion. All familiar, or even traumatic visual displays of life in 2020.
It’s like cliff notes on adrenaline working in tandem with the blink-of-an-eye pace of financial volatility at the mercy of editor Kirk Baxter (Mank), once more in a heavy business drama element. Info is dumped on, characters handle their issues, and a pandemic-era motif is established, with little to no breathing room. Even with the viewer perhaps having known about the real-life rollercoaster ahead of time, if not also participated themselves, it’s tough to stay ahead of Gillespie’s pace, though not impossible. It might reward repeat viewings and a future director’s cut if only to improve clarity.
In such a bite-size form, Dumb Money does struggle with conveying or sticking to a consistent idea of tone. At first, it flails about introducing its main characters and related motivations. Interjecting with a range of archive footage (and that of numerous TikTokkers as vox populi who gave in to the craze) adds clarity and perspective but nearly disrupts the flow whenever Gillespie manages to achieve balance. By the latter half, it settles into a speedy, percussive rhythm fitting to its growing tension coil, keeping his cast well on their toes.
Dano, especially, with a not-so-subtle Bostonian accent, toeing the line between silly and prophetic. This is very much his world, his film, and he’s incredibly drilled in, setting the table for his like-minded peers. Ferrera and Ramos stand out with empathic strides, both possessing level heads to counter their respective comic timing. To follow up from her killer role in Barbie to another assertive supporting role, it’s a streak that deserves to continue in perpetuity. And I do wish there’d been more of Rogen and D’Onofrio to fulfill that villainous edge. Even Stan’s relegated to a large cameo versus a significant player, another middling source of frustration. The three of them take an undeserving backseat, contributing the least to this speedrun. Their presences are still palpable, and yet a smidge underwritten.
The shortcuts taken are tough to ignore, but not impossible to swallow, as Gillespie meanders through a steady incline at a brisk yet workable pace. Such a cultural phenomenon needn’t be handled so recklessly or haphazardly, but he still makes it look cool and delightfully self-aware. While far from his creative peak, and even while the facts of what made the short squeeze so compelling are rushed through, his approach to telling this story finds a comfortable niche to soften any manner of hesitation. Dumb Money isn’t perfect, often too chaotic for its own good. But maybe that’s what makes it so entertaining, leaning into that chaos, with a sharp-eyed wit and intellect to carry it along. Nothing like its title would preclude, it is almost the antithesis of lunacy. (B+; 3.5/5)
Dumb Money opens in several theaters around Seattle as part of a moderate expansion on September 22, followed by a wide break on September 29; rated R for pervasive language, sexual material, and drug use; 105 minutes.