Satire 'Dumb Money' Retells the GameStop Short Squeeze as a Story of Snobs Versus Slobs | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Satire 'Dumb Money' Retells the GameStop Short Squeeze as a Story of Snobs Versus Slobs

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Published October 4, 2023 at 10:00 a.m.


Parts of the American pandemic experience already feel like a collective hallucination. Among them is the GameStop short squeeze of January 2021, which is arguably more of a feel-good story than the rest of that grim era we're still processing — and hence perfect movie fodder. The new comedy Dumb Money is based on a 2021 book by Ben Mezrich whose title says it all: The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees.

Who doesn't want to watch a bunch of regular people stick it to the hedge fund managers who thought they could make a windfall by betting on a retail chain going bankrupt? This semi-fictionalized story of the Wall Street debacle, directed by Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya), is playing in local theaters.

The deal

By day, Keith Gill (Paul Dano) is a humble financial analyst for MassMutual. Each evening he returns to the rental where he lives with his wife (Shailene Woodley) and their baby, descends into the basement, and transforms into YouTube streamer Roaring Kitty, wearer of feline-themed apparel and financial guru of the Reddit forum r/wallstreetbets. Observing that Wall Street is betting against the survival of GameStop, Keith defies the pros, touting the company to his followers as an undervalued stock.

Around the country, lockdown-weary Americans decide to join him. A single mom and essential worker (America Ferrera) wants to improve her lot in life. A college student (Talia Ryder) hopes to dig her way out from under a mountain of debt. A GameStop clerk (Anthony Ramos) sees the stock as a better route to prosperity than his dead-end job. All take advantage of the relatively new app Robinhood, which makes investment as easy as playing a game on your phone.

When the meme-driven movement sends GameStop stock soaring, fund manager Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) suddenly has bigger problems than the logistics of building a private tennis court. He and his fellow financiers scramble to close ranks against the amateur investors whom they've always dismissed as "dumb money."

Will you like it?

The obvious predecessor to Dumb Money is Adam McKay's The Big Short, which used effectively simplified explanations of the stock market to demonstrate how the housing bubble of the aughts was built on sand. In this movie's telling, the rise of GameStop stock was built on class rage and memes.

While Keith argues that the company has real value, his explanation goes by in a flash. This film's focus isn't on elucidating the workings of Wall Street or defending the honor of brick-and-mortar businesses. (Mall staple GameStop is no scrappy mom-and-pop store.) Instead, montage after montage scored to triumphant, irreverent beats celebrates the power of a mass movement armed with silly GIFs to stand up against the 1 percent.

Dumb Money is most interesting when it milks absurdist comedy from the insularity of those clashing subcultures: the Redditors and the financiers. Each group has its own lexicon, etiquette and in-jokes. The screenplay (by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo) takes a bemused, anthropological approach to both, whether it's Keith turning a proletarian dinner of chicken tenders into a rallying cry or a billionaire pampering his pet pig.

Dano makes an effective central presence. As he's shown in many previous roles, he can use his unassuming moon face to turn on a dime from a seemingly passive, guileless pawn to a conniving antagonist. The role of Keith requires a similar duality. Is he just an underachieving "nerd" with a Wall Street obsession, as his deadbeat brother (Pete Davidson) believes? Or is he a revolutionary? How does he feel about leading a popular movement that exposes the vulnerability of the American financial system?

Dumb Money never answers this question, because it doesn't dig particularly deep into Keith or any of its characters. They remain stereotypes, albeit mostly entertaining ones. While actors such as Ferrera and Rogen deliver skilled, funny performances, nothing they do or say illuminates much beyond the film's basic thesis. Keith conveniently voices that message toward the end of the movie: In a world of increasing economic inequality, the GameStop short squeeze offered "hope for the little guy."

Did it really, though? Or was the whole episode simply a surreal demonstration of what happens when an old capitalist institution (the stock market) collides with a new one (social media)? In a recent New York Times op-ed, two economists express their fear that viewers of Dumb Money "will be inspired to copy the heroes' investment strategies, which is about as smart as driving home at 100 miles per hour after seeing The Fast and the Furious." They sound as prissy as the financial experts mocked in the movie. But maybe, just maybe, they have a point — that it takes a lot more than gaming the system to change it.

If you like this, try...

"Eat the Rich: The GameStop Saga" (three episodes, 2022; Netflix): Want the facts behind the fiction? This miniseries is just one of several documentaries dissecting the GameStop short squeeze. Others include GameStop: Rise of the Players (2022; Hulu, rentable), "Gaming Wall St" (two episodes, 2022; Max) and MSNBC's Diamond Hands: The Legend of WallStreetBets (2022; Peacock).

The Big Short (2015; Netflix, rentable): McKay's dark comedy about the subprime loan crisis of 2008 remains the gold standard for movies about stock market trading.

I, Tonya (2017; Max, rentable): Gillespie made his name with this satirical take on the 1994 Olympic figure skating scandal.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Dumb Money 4"

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