A lot of the young men who became stock traders in the 1980s saw themselves as rebels: the new swingers of greed. Of course, they weren’t really rebels. But it felt good to them to think of themselves that way. Keith Gill (Paul Dano), the central figure in Craig Gillespie’s smart, light-fingered, brashly entertaining finance-world docudrama “Dumb Money,” is an amateur stock trader who also sees himself as a rebel. Keith, unlike the Wall Street players, actually is trying to fight the system. But he may be nearly as caught up in illusions as they are.
The Wall Street badasses of the ’80s wanted to be cool. Keith, by contrast, is a long-haired Middle American nerd who lives in Brockton, MA, with his wife (Shailene Woodley) and infant daughter and works for the Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company. In his spare time, he posts freewheeling video rambles on wallstreetbets, a chat division of Reddit, and on YouTube. Calling himself Roaring Kitty, he broadcasts out of his basement while nursing a beer, wearing a shirt bedecked with gaudy cat photos and a mock-samurai bandana wrapped around his forehead.
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Against a projected backdrop of his financial portfolio, he jabbers on about his stock-market obsession — his fervent belief in GameStop, the brick-and-mortar video-game outlet he grew up with. Sounding like Jim Cramer crossed with a grunge version of Christian Slater in “Pump Up the Volume,” Keith looks like a loser hooked on a deranged obsession. But in the world of stock tips, he’s got so much belief that he has amassed a small following. He’s invested $53,000 of his own money — his family’s savings — in GameStop. And it’s due to his conviction that something starts to happen.
“Dumb Money” is set during the first two months of 2021, when GameStop’s best days would seem to have been long behind it. It’s losing hundreds of millions of dollars a year. It’s a relic-in-the-making, like Blockbuster Video a generation before. The most powerful American hedge funds have spent years betting against GameStop, short selling the stock, making money off the promise of its failure. But Keith, with his flaky, shiny-eyed, so-out-there-it’s-in social-media presence, wins a handful of converts over to his mania. And against all odds, the stock starts to rise. Which just feeds the enthusiasm for it.
Of course, what’s really feeding the enthusiasm is the fact that the hedge funds are short selling it. Keith positions Gamestop as the “people’s” stock, the one that the greedheads didn’t want you to believe in. He turns buying the stock into an act of fighting back against a system that’s stacked against ordinary people. But once people start to buy the stock, all the short selling that’s gone on — the undervaluing — acts like oxygen feeding a fire. That’s what a short squeeze is: The stock takes off like a rocket. It was selling at $3.85, but within weeks it’s selling at $20, at $60, at $100, finally shooting up to $348. Everyone who invested in it, led by Keith, is a winner. Keith himself is soon worth $22 million.
But has perception become reality? Is GameStop, as a corporation, really worth more than it was? That’s the eternal question of the market, even as the GameStop phenomenon gets fueled into an armchair insurrection.
A commercial movie needs a hero, and “Dumb Money,” which is defter, more fun, and less labored than “The Big Short” (it doesn’t keep chewing on its exposition), has a shaggy hero, of sorts, in Keith, the basement stock analyst who, for a few months, kicked off a movement, democratizing the top-down world of stock trading. The film’s title is the phrase that Wall Street uses to look down its nose at individual investors. You might say that it’s a film made in their defense. And Paul Dano, playing Keith as a kind of quirky, saintly, dough-faced financial savant, wins you over to his cracked conviction.
Yet what’s most compelling about “Dumb Money” is that Gillespie (the irreverent craftsman of “I, Tonya” and “Cruella”), working from a layered script by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, draws back, at least for a while, from over-romanticizing Keith’s one-man-against-the-system crusade to turn GameStop into the salvation of retail investors.
The movie is an ensemble drama that shows us a cross-section of America in the new age of financial peril. We see the people who get drawn into Keith’s financial orbit, like Jenny (America Ferrara), a nurse and single mom who can scarcely afford to get her kids braces, or Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold), a college couple who are each 150 grand in debt, or Marcos (Anthony Ramos), a serpentine rapper/dancer who has to keep his spirit under wraps at the GameStop outlet he works at in Detroit. Pete Davidson skulks amusingly around the edges as Keith’s sub-ne’er-do-well brother. And we see the hedge-fund managers, like Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and, mostly, Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), the founder of of Melvin Capital Management, who has short-sold so much GameStop that when the stock shoots up, it pulls him down like a dragon being yanked by the tail into an abyss.
The symbolism of GameStop, as a store, was essential to its counterintuitive stock success. The mostly young investors who bought it, almost out of a kind of nostalgia, were saying: The world we grew up in, rooted in physical media, can still mean the world in an all-digital culture. And we’re going to prove it by jacking up this stock and rubbing it in the face of the piggy elitist hedge-fund short sellers. ¡Viva la Revolución!
Yet was the headline-making saga of GameStop a vengeful, profit-generating version of Occupy Wall Street? Was it a fluke that emerged from the torpor of the pandemic? Or was it a crowd-sourced pyramid scheme that wore the aura of something more righteous? I would argue that it was all three, and “Dumb Money,” at its best, is made with a rich enough sense of detail and dramatic irony to grasp that big picture.
By the end, however, the film gives itself over to a celebration of what Keith Gill accomplished that feels, to me, more studiously crowd-pleasing than perceptive. Keith, even when he’s worth millions, won’t sell his stock and cash in. The key meme of the time cited by the movie is “diamond hands” — holding onto a stock with die-hard conviction. Yet if the GameStop saga wound up giving the greedheads a spanking (according to an end title, they’ve cut back, at least for the moment, on short-selling), the movie, in ascribing a moral value to the fact that everybody else’s net worth went up, seems to be endorsing the slot-machine exuberance of stock-market gambling as a way to rescue the collapse of the middle class. And that’s just too easy. The only real lesson of the GameStop saga, as revealed in “Dumb Money,” is that things will always look flush at the top of the pyramid.
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