Dumb Money really wants to be David Fincher’s The Social Network for the hyper meme-ified, “extremely online” era. It’s a lofty goal, of which Craig Gillespie’s GameStop short squeeze chronicle frequently falls short. However, this is a metric occasionally worth setting aside in order to appreciate what it does manage to achieve: It’s an extremely funny watch, if little else.
Based on the book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich (who also penned The Accidental Billionaires, the basis for Fincher’s film), Dumb Money is about that one bizarre GameStop story you might remember from January 2021. Almost a year into COVID lockdowns, numerous Redditors and casual investors pumped the stock price of failing gaming retail chain GameStop up to $500 a share, some 30 times its value a month prior, essentially spitting in the faces of predatory hedge fund investors whose profits were tied up in the company’s failure.
Those are the broad strokes, anyway. You’re unlikely to come away from Dumb Money having gained much insight into these events — beyond how the saga ended, if you don’t already know — and the movie is unlikely to be a culture-shifting juggernaut. In fact, its level of actual cultural engagement seems set to “bare minimum.” However, it’s bolstered by entertaining performances that, at least sometimes, make up for its numerous shortcomings elsewhere and ensure that it’s never boring, even when it tends to be slight.
Who and what is Dumb Money about?
Dumb Money takes the form of a sprawling ensemble piece, even though it probably shouldn’t. At a scant 104 minutes, it has just enough time to draw up a framework of how the GameStop short squeeze came to pass and some of the parties involved, though it rarely manages to give most characters their due. The one notable exception — the movie’s ostensible lead — is Keith Gill (Paul Dano), the real-life stock tips YouTuber who went by the online monikers “Roaring Kitty” and “Deep Fucking Value,” depending on the platform.
The film opens in January 2021, on the day the squeeze took off and became a major news item. Characters on both sides of the event to respond to headlines with shocked proclamations of “Holy fucking shit!” — Gillespie certainly creates anticipation, even if it doesn’t always pay off — before the movie flashes back by six months to establish its story. Those familiar with Gill’s cat-loving YouTube persona are likely to recognize his gaudy printed T-shirts and signature red headband, but the film also provides a peek behind the curtain, from his wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley) and their infant daughter, to his deadbeat delivery driver brother, Kevin (Pete Davidson), to his working-class parents, Steve (Clancy Brown) and Elaine (Kate Burton), who remain none the wiser about online fame and the internet’s money-making potential.
Every character is introduced through on-screen text denoting their net worth. It’s a slick way to quickly establish which side of America’s massive income divide they’re part of, though few other scenes ever truly speak to this notion, beyond the film’s detailed production design, and the fancy parties thrown by out-of-touch Wall Street hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), Kenneth Griffin (Nick Offerman), and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) — the latter of whom inexplicably wanders his mansion with a pet pig. It’s perfect casting.
At the bottom rung of the film’s social ladder, you have indebted college queer couple Riri (Myha’la Herrold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder), floundering GameStop cashier Marcus (Anthony Ramos), and frustrated on-call nurse Jennifer (America Ferrera), all of whom take Gill’s advice and load up on GameStop shares. On paper, this doesn’t seem like too many supporting characters to flesh out, but the movie often veers between them with reckless abandon, seldom allowing for any one of them to have a complete story of their own.
Most characters in Dumb Money feel incomplete.
The way Gill’s story is rounded out makes for a fascinating dramedy of its own, between a recent tragedy that looms over his family dinners, and the eventual conundrum of whether to cash out when the stock price rises “to the moon” or whether to “HODL” (“hold” in the characters’ Reddit parlance) — a gamble for more profits. The existence of a dilemma isn’t enough; that it’s rooted in three-dimensional characters whose lives are funny, melancholy, and multifaceted imbues each decision with stakes, and that Gill’s scenes are all punctuated by the ridiculous bro-comedy of his brash stoner brother makes it all the more dynamic.
Unfortunately, the movie’s dramatic strengths largely end there. With the minor exception of Rogen’s arrogant but put-together Plotkin — whose home life we glimpse on occasion — few characters seem to exist outside of specific environments and repetitive conversations. Worse yet, the movie hints at incredibly intriguing elements of their psychology, before dropping each thread after little more than a passing mention of their motives and mindsets. They have neither inner nor outer lives.
Harmony, for instance, is seduced by Riri during a drinking game, and is simultaneously lured in by her investment habits on the app Robinhood (which is at the center of a trading debacle the movie eventually gets to). Months down the line, Harmony has gone from skeptic to one of Gill’s ride-or-die soldiers, willing to follow his instructions at every step. However, apart from brief exposition that expands on her disdain for the rich, we learn little about her, and her dynamic with Gill’s videos is a parasocial relationship the film doesn’t frame as such. At every turn, it misses out on the opportunity to capture the inadvertent cult of personality that forms around Gill.
It’s a movie about online cultures that isn’t nearly online enough, as a mindset. It uses compilations of various stock-related GIFs and image macros ripped from the posts of Reddit’s r/WallStreetBets, but it fades these in slowly, using them only as contextual set dressing — as reminders of events and timelines. There’s little sense of the board’s casual investors getting swept up in trollish communal-ism, or the rush and allure of the adrenaline that comes from groupthink and group action expressed through memes (something HBO’s documentary on the subject, Gaming Wall Street, deftly captured through its explosive editing). The characters are always browsing Reddit, but they don’t feel like Redditors, at least in ways that might suit the movie’s purview of casual investing. They have no relationship to the websites and online celebrities that shape their lives.
For instance, Jennifer becomes practically addicted to buying stocks, often as a substitute for a romantic and sexual life, but this dynamic is expressed only in a single scene and never manifests elsewhere, except for a fleeting conversation with her upbeat hospital co-worker, Chris (Larry Owens). In real life, the addictive natures of gambling and online chicanery collided headfirst in the squeeze story, and they came laced with an explosive, anti-capitalist righteousness born of financial frustrations. The film’s dialogue hints at all these elements at one point or another, but if it ever presents them, it only does so at a distance, in coldly observed fashion. The characters joke about it, which makes it an amusing watch, but it’s not the kind of movie that truly embodies its subject matter — certainly not the way The Social Network did, as a pulsating examination of jealousy, the allure of power, and the way millennials communicate.
While it would be convenient to ignore this major influence, unfortunately it’s a comparison that represents the movie’s biggest problems in a nutshell.
Dumb Money tries and fails to be The Social Network in a multitude of ways.
There are scenes practically ripped from Fincher’s Zuckerberg pseudo-biopic, from Gill’s introductory scene — a sit-down conversation at a bar table shot in profile, during which he flexes his technical know-how — to the numerous cross-cut montages of various online happenings. Not only was Dumb Money originally going to share a producer with The Social Network — Michael De Luca, who didn’t end up being involved — but it was eventually executive-produced by two of the latter’s subjects, Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. They also share an editor, Kirk Baxter, who won Oscars for his editing work on both The Social Network and Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Baxter attempts to string Dumb Money‘s scenes together with a similar energy, but unfortunately the shots themselves don’t have enough by way of momentum or intrigue to warrant this approach.
Furthermore, the score by Will Bates seems hell-bent on imitating the low, rumbling electronic hums of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, who filled The Social Network‘s soundscape with an ominousness that matched its framing device. While The Social Network used dueling lawsuits against Zuck as a framing device, there isn’t anything quite so specific in Dumb Money. By cutting back to events from the day of the squeeze, it simply establishes that “something” happened — something potentially exciting, sure (the use of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B on the soundtrack certainly helps enhance this), and perhaps something troubling for the hedge fund suits. But it never earns the sense of foreboding Bates seems to attempt with his compositions.
If you enter the film with foreknowledge of events, and of the way Robinhood’s skeevy CEO Vlad Tenev (a severely under-utilized Sebastian Stan) acted in response, then a mild sense of fatalism creeps in through the corners of the frame whenever characters express their frustrations, framing their “stonk” trading as economic praxis. But Dumb Money is also a film that relegates the aftermath of the squeeze to on-screen text; it ends when it feels like it should just be ramping up towards righteous fury.
In The Social Network, the stakes were always interpersonal. The numbers and figures all eventually came down to the relationships between characters. Dumb Money has no such advantage. Its characters never meet each other. Most of them never communicate at all; those that do are the hedge fund managers, and they speak over the phone. Every plot ripple seems to emanate from somewhere off-screen, independently of any of them. It never features a sense of causality, which is why it can be so downright frustrating — so it’s a good thing it’s pretty funny.
At the end of the day, these are all people in over their heads, and their misguided interactions with their offline friends and families make for a riotous contrast. However, it’s hard not to wonder what kind of film Dumb Money would’ve been had its dramatic tenets succeeded, and had it aesthetically embodied the mood, tone, and perspective its characters constantly hint at through words, and words alone.
Dumb Money was reviewed out its world premiere at 2023’s Toronto International Film Festival. It will open in NY/LA on Sept. 15 before going nationwide on Sept. 29.