Producers: Aaron Ryder, Teddy Schwarzman and Craig Gillespie Director: Craig Gillespie Screenplay: Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo Cast: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D’Onofrio, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, Sebastian Stan, Shailene Woodley, Dane DeHaan, Myha’la Herrold, Rushi Kota, Talia Ryder, Olivia Thirlby and Seth Rogen Distributor: Sony Entertainment/Columbia Pictures
According to this take on the stock market “short squeeze” brouhaha over GameStop in early 2021—adapted by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo from Ben Mezrich’s book “The Antisocial Network,” written at lightning speed and published later the same year—the titular term is used by major players on Wall Street to refer to small individual investors who haven’t a prayer of winning against the big boys who manage hedge funds and lord it over the trading system. Of course, in the GameStop episode it was the “dumb money” crowd—or a few of them, at least—who stuck it to the smart guys—or some of them.
Craig Gillespie’s picture, which balances a seriocomic treatment of the former with a cheekily satirical portrait of the latter, isn’t the first film to tackle the subject—Jonah Tulis’ documentary “GameStop: Rise of the Player,” which got a limited release last year, profiled some of the small investors who hit it big by buying stock in the struggling chain of brick-and-mortar stores low and holding onto it, selling only after it skyrocketed. None of them appear here, although fictionalized versions of such self-styled “diamond hands” do.
The focus, however, is on the major players in the episode. The David figure is Keith Gill (Paul Dano), the middle-class Massachusetts family man who used his home-based studio to post messages under usernames like Roaring Kitty about his purchase of GameStop stock, which he considered undervalued, on Reddit and YouTube. They induced others to follow his example, and the price of the stock inched up. The movement became a flood as more and more small investors got involved using investment apps like Robinhood, and the stock price boomed. Gill became a hero to some, but lost his job as an agent at Massachusetts Mutual and came under scrutiny from state and federal authorities in the process.
The primary Goliath of the story is Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), the head of the hedge fund Melvin Capital, who had engaged in short selling the stock, betting what turned out to be billions that it would continue to decline. When that strategy—and his firm—were threatened by the stock’s rise, he was forced to seek assistance from two other fund managers, Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman). Their machinations—and the shutdown of trading by Robinhood honchos Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota)—led to outrage over what was viewed as unfair manipulation of the supposedly free trading market.
Interspersed with the sequences that jump back and forth between the David and Goliath threads are scenes following a few small investors, all fictionalized: Jenny (America Ferrara), a Pittsburgh nurse struggling to raise her kids as a single mother; Marcus (Anthony Ramos), a Detroit GameStop store clerk harassed by his power-mad boss Brad (Dane DeHaan); and Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold), hard-partying coeds at the University of Texas.
The scenes depicting Plotkin’s increasingly frenzied reaction as his company faces ruin and the smoother maneuverings of Cohen and Griffin are amusing, with Rogen, D’Onofrio and Offerman (as well as Olivia Thirlby as Plotkin’s concerned wife) all capturing their characters’ sense of utter entitlement even as the world was suffering the effects of the COVID pandemic, and the thread following the collapse of the Robinhood empire work nicely as well, with Stan in particular rivaling Rogen’s sense of growing desperation. Meanwhile the sequences covering the back-and-forth mood swings of the fictional “diamond hands” provide a nice counterpoint (with Jenny’s story actually quite affecting).
But it’s the portion of the picture focusing on Gill that carries the greatest impact. That’s not just because it’s more serious than comic, or because it delves into his psychological makeup with any great depth; indeed, Gill remains an opaque figure throughout, with his relationships—to his rock-solid parents, truck driver Steve (Clancy Brown) and nurse Elaine (Kate Burton), to his slacker brother Kevin (Pete Davidson, who makes the fellow too genuinely annoying, the DoorDash delivery guy from hell), and even to his supportive but anxious wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley)—only sketchily treated. Falling back on scenes of him taking to a high school running track when the stress gets too great—Gill really was a track-and-field star as a student—is too easy a dramatic crutch to bring much insight.
But Dano is so good at making the ambiguity of the characters he plays a virtue that Gill becomes, in his hands, the sort of reluctantly heroic figure you embrace emotionally even though you don’t really understand him. Dano captures Gill’s combination of on-air razzmatazz and off-screen timorousness, as well as his joy at the sight of his infant daughter and grief while visiting his late sister’s grave; he even makes Keith’s tolerance of Kevin’s irritating intrusions credible. It’s another in his growing list of remarkable high-wire acts on screen.
The different worlds in the picture are expertly differentiated in Scott Kuzio’s production design, Kameron Lennox’s costumes and Nicolas Karakatsanis’ cinematography, which contrast the bright opulence of the wealthy characters’ mode of life against the bleak, dismal surroundings in which Gill, his family, and his followers struggle to survive during a pandemic period that already seems like ancient history; the class conflict theme is expressed visually as well as dramatically. Kirk Baxter’s editing manages the transitions among the various plot strands nicely while adding some glitzy touches to the mix without overdoing it, while Will Bates’s score is attentive to the varied, shifting moods.
In his review of Mezrich’s book in The New York Times, Giri Nathan criticized its looseness with the facts, but concluded, “Don’t sweat the details. You’re gonna love the movie.” His judgment about the book might be debatable, but he was on the right track about the movie. Though the word “love” is excessive, odds are you’ll at least like “Dumb Money.” It might simply have been a real-life helping of Capracorn, but thanks largely to Dano it’s more substantial than that.