The story of an internet disruption of stock market psychology, Dumb Money is another business drama that is glossy, cynical, and too expensive in its own right. There are some compelling threads here that naturally build a story, profiling one guy on YouTube and the sizeable difference he made in the lives of everyone who followed his lead and bought stock in GameStop. The story is often given to exaggeration and overstatement because stock trading isn’t that sexy without the memes. And the film does treat this disruption as a memetic market force, wherein a usable stock market tip, even a disruptive one, is treated as the most important thing that can happen to the characters in the story. Their stakes are largely financial, which isn’t nothing for the handful of people the movie profiles who are down on their luck until it all comes together.
There is a need to always keep the movie moving. If you spend too long on any of the finer details here, the stack of cards falls in on itself. The story must always be moving. To achieve something like a constant input of forward movement, director Craig Gillespie unspools the threads in an effort to cross-stitch an ensemble of stories. Some of the characters are characters, like Keith Gill (Paul Dano), and other characters are the pertinent details of their financial investments. They matter to the story because they participated, but not because the story wants to tell us about any of their interior lives, although it still does manage just enough finer details to necessitate the presence of an entire ensemble, even if it can’t pay them all off at the end. The funny way the movie opens is with a moment in the late-middle where everything goes belly-up for these mega-rich investors who shorted the stock, and now stand to lose billions of dollars every day the internet continues to troll their disbelief in brick-and-mortar gaming retail having a meaningful market impact going into the ’20s.
The movie is based on Ben Mezrich’s book The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees, but thankfully the title is not. Dumb Money will do in this case, dumb money refers to when individual traders pile all their money into failing and shorted stocks hoping to create an artificial short-squeeze situation. There are a handful of examples of this going well but this is usually the kind of money these big investors are playing against and making all their money from. This is, however, a big-money project that cynically laughs at this moment where some regular people got to make money in a system that is totally geared against them, and mostly finds easy humor in that situation, but is not sober or coherent enough to structure its own informed argument about what it means that this has happened or whether or not this whole outing had any real consequences for the villains of the story. This is because it didn’t. It’s good that regular people made some money by subverting the rich but it is not a story where the market changed and the positions of everyone involved were reversed. They got money. Everyone they temporarily hurt was bailed out and the systems that always protect these people protected them again. The movie does not really address that this internet version of a successful pyramid scheme mostly just made other billionaires rich.
So it seems in one way of framing the movie darkly cynical to make the thing an outright comedic drama. It is made with a lot of money itself, pointing to a relevant future where comedy movies can and will be made, but they will continue to need either higher concepts or a financially relevant corporate story they can go and tell. Naturally, most of the companies in this one come out worse for wear. The big Wall Street guys look evil, the middleman apps like Robinhood just seem to be another way to make Hedge Funds money, and the the movie overvalues ugly online culture, often celebrating some of the brasher language and messaging that the internet promotes. Likewise, it has to by the situation and framing then situate the appearance of figures like Elon Musk, who is used both mimetically and as a voice clip explainer of why Robinhood is bad, as a directly positive force in internet culture. Certainly, this was written before the Twitter takeover but the writing was already on the wall about Musk and a thoughtful movie would not need to raise up billionaires to shame other billionaires for that silly time when they lost their money before getting it back. It’s not actively trying to be bad, with the Adam McKay-like NeoLiberal mindset that it is on the right side of everything it approaches, but it often feels tone deaf, and like it’s not listening to itself when it’s presenting arguments and often contradicting itself with both the format and approach given.
This story will always be a pandemic story. There’s a weird thing happening in Dumb Money where although the events are only a few years old, it feels like a period story. There is this ugly attitude about masks, which seems to imply in their framing and when characters are reminded to put them back on, that masks and COVID protections are part of oppressive systems, but it’s more likely the movie just isn’t thoughtful about what it means and just includes so many masks because it helps us identify this place and time. It’s in the short-term relevancy of the memes but also important moments that pinpoint a place in time with pop songs like “WAP” and “Humble,” there’s a sense that this phase of our lives is also the time wherein we can tell stories about people sitting on computers and talking over telephones.
Because it is an internet story, most of our characters are never even in the same room as each other. Our protagonists and antagonists do not meet and do not really know each other. There is an ambivalence to the way characters can be developed in this matter. Several are given counterparts that only show up and are relevant in their individual stories, which likely worked as a real-life story and as a book, but makes for an unwieldy and hard-to-judge ensemble on film. It’s hard to really categorize the ensemble who didn’t need to be on set together or ever even in the same pieces of the story, because there are so many disparate threads, and the only connective piece is Paul Dano, who is always good enough, but you’re really going to have to hold onto that.
For a business comedy, although the fact this all happened and the way it went down is mildly diverting, there are not really many laughs. This is perhaps due to the disconnection of the characters. When there are laughs, it’s because certain characters are framed in the same room together. You get Paul Dano’s character sparring off with his down-on-his-luck brother played by the still-funny Pete Davidson — who the film also seems scornful of, as though it chooses when people get to be celebrated for creating their own financial realities — but these laughs it does produce come with an uneasiness. What are we laughing for? The same problems that are the crux of the film remain and meme communities are still just as likely to exploit large segments of the market. It’s just not a hilarious story anyway and perhaps it’s the fact that the irreverence and lightness of the material, like The Big Short (2015) before it, outweigh the gravity of the real and human stories that are genuinely affected by the outcomes of these volatile stocks. By the end of the movie, the fact remains that stocks just aren’t that interesting and this story may be one exception, like someone winning the lottery, but it doesn’t necessitate nearly two hours of broad and widely divided character development with bad social messaging.