TORONTO, Canada—Be it his reputation-restoration projects I, Tonya and Pam & Tommy or his live-action Disney origin story Cruella, Craig Gillespie has a thing for making shallow, strident, in-your-face comedic dramas about brash outsiders. He’s at it again with Dumb Money, the true tale of the Redditors—led by investor Keith Gill—who briefly upended Wall Street and made themselves industry stars (and, in a few cases, wealthy) by short-squeezing GameStop’s stock.
Ripped from yesterday’s headlines, it’s as fast, flashy, and superficial as the director’s prior efforts, and also as exaggerated—a state of affairs due not only to its style but to its celebration of its characters as working-class revolutionaries rather than just temporarily clever merry pranksters.
“Power to the Players,” was GameStop’s slogan, a proletariat rallying cry taken very seriously by Dumb Money (in theaters September 15, following its premiere Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival). Written by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo with sub-The Big Short cheekiness, Gillespie’s film is a call to arms for the “little man” against the rich and powerful, as it incessantly announces out loud, most frequently via Shailene Woodley’s Caroline, the wife of its protagonist Keith (Paul Dano).
A financial analyst at MassMutual by day and an amateur stock-advising YouTuber at night, Keith goes by two online monikers, DeepFuckingValue (DFV) and Roaring Kitty, the latter because his makeshift basement studio is decorated with a “Hang in there, Baby”-style kitten poster, he records himself reacting to cat videos, and he wears tie-dye shirts decorated with furry felines. He’s additionally someone who prizes value, as he demonstrates when he opts for a Hamm’s beer over a Heineken and, more importantly, when he begins putting his money where his mouth is in the market.
At the outset of Dumb Money, Keith has already invested $53,000 in GameStop despite the fact that brick-and-mortar retail is hurting, game purchases are now primarily made online, and the company is on the rocks. Why does he do this? Dumb Money has him spout some cursory explanations, yet the apparent reason is that, well, he just likes the stock! That, however, turns out to be only part of the story.
Though Keith verbally denies it, Gillespie’s film makes it painfully obvious that, as a lower middle-class Average Joe with a wife and infant daughter, Keith resents Wall Street and hedge fund bigwigs who have all the advantages, can do as they please, and wield their power to destroy beloved outfits such as GameStop by selling short, in which profits are earned by betting against a company and driving their share prices down. He’s a modern-day Che Guevara in a red martial-arts headband and with goofy lingo—“diamond hands” means to hold fast; “tendies,” a term derived from his kid’s favorites food, refers to gains—that, along with posting his portfolio online for all to see, helps turn him into a celebrity guru on the subreddit r/wallstreetbets.
Keith is meant to represent “us” and, consequently, Dumb Money provides a “them” in the form of avaricious hedge fund billionaires: Melvin Capital Management’s Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), S.A.C. Capital Advisors’ Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio); and Citadel LLC’s Kenneth
C. Griffin (Nick Offerman), who has a stake in Robinhood, an investment app whose founders Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota), and Vladimir Tenev (Sebastian Stan) are depicted as greedy Occupy Wall Street-coopting crooks. Peppering his soundtrack with oh-so-funny hip-hop songs, Gillespie situates these cretins in the lap of extravagant luxury, and shoots them in comical slow-motion and unflattering lights, in order to ridicule their gross affluence. Simultaneously, he lavishes compassion on the everyday blue-collar folks who join Keith’s GameStop crusade, including nurse Jennifer (America Ferrera), college girlfriends Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold), GameStop store clerk Marcus (Anthony Ramos), and Keith’s brother Kevin (Pete Davidson), a DoorDash employee who eats his customers’ food, smokes lots of weed, and resembles every other grungy going-nowhere schlub the comedian has played.
Dumb Money fleetingly captures the weirdo insular Internet culture of r/wallstreetbets (full of catchphrases, code words, and Ape-centric memes), but that’s less a priority than repeatedly and bluntly articulating the one thought in its head. Gillespie’s film posits its saga as one about class warfare, and then has someone actually call it “class warfare,” along with having other individuals decry the system as “just so damn unfair,” Wall Street as a “bullshit way for rich people to get richer,” and hedge fund managers as “gangsters.” Subtlety is a wholly foreign concept to these proceedings, and so too is humor, which here amounts to a few offhand Davidson one-liners and the sight of Ramos doing his best Cardi B impression for his jerky boss (Dane DeHaan), who’s the low-level version of the moneyed titans rigging the game to keep everyone else down.
Gillespie interjects news footage into his action and, to italicize that this really happened, concludes his material by playing non-fiction clips of the scenes he previously dramatized. At every turn, including via textual notes about the net worth of his various players, he spoon-feeds his message that those with fat bank accounts are inherently bad and those struggling to subsist or in debt are intrinsically good. Even if one subscribes to this simplistic paradigm, Dumb Money’s lack of nuance is enervating. As in his previous work, a capable cast is asked to embody crudely drawn characters who are either “like a Disney Channel villain” (as Kevin describes Gabe Plotkin) or—considering that they’re trying to provide for their kids, help their parents, or grieve deceased relatives—are noble, selfless and sympathetic.
Because its story takes place in 2020-2021, Dumb Money makes a point to highlight the fact that everyone is wearing masks, albeit to no meaningful end; it’s just another way in which the director indulges in recent-past nostalgia. His latest’s title is the derogatory name used by pros to describe amateur investors, and it’s meant to be ironic, since goliaths Plotkin and Griffin were felled (to some extent) by Davids like Keith. With no complexity, even less delicacy, and a complete absence of genuine comedy, however, it’s history—and audiences—that the film treats dumbly.
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The Daily Beast