‘Dumb Money’ Review: Paul Dano Stands Out in Definitive Portrait of COVID Era

Dumb Money

In January 2021, retail investors posting on the r/WallStreetBets subreddit rallied behind the nearly bankrupt GameStop video game retail chain, blindsiding professional and institutional brokers who had wagered against it. Their efforts would cost Melvin Capital – which first put GameStop in the short position – $6.8 billion and would culminate in House Financial Services Committee hearings in Washington. It’s the stuff of legend.

The saga has already spawned multiple documentaries and docuseries, including one each at Netflix, Max and Hulu. “Dumb Money,” the first dramatic take that had its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, came together in an impressively short time, arriving while national headlines are still fresh in our collective memory. It also carries a level of pedigree, with “I, Tonya” director Craig Gillespie at helm of an adaptation of nonfiction work by Ben Mezrich, whose books also served as basis for “The Social Network” and “21.”

While various retellings don’t necessarily agree on who were the masterminds behind the GameStop short squeeze, “Dumb Money” seems to prefer the official version by anchoring the plot with some of those who ultimately testified before the congressional committee: Keith Gill (Paul Dano), known on the interweb as Roaring Kitty, who in 2019 invested $53,000 in life savings in GameStop stock and livestreamed about it; and Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), founder of Melvin Capital, who at one point was losing $1 billion a day betting on the stock’s decline.

As with the docs, “Dumb Money” also highlights a sampling of Redditors from r/WallStreetBets to illustrate what motivated them to hop on the GameStop bandwagon and, more importantly, stick it to the hedge fund men: Jenny (America Ferrera), an essential worker during the height of the pandemic; Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold), college students strapped with hundreds of thousands dollars’ worth of debt; and Marcus (Anthony Ramos), an employee in a lifeless GameStop shopping mall outpost.

One thing though: as the film alludes to, there’s a toxic bro culture deeply embedded in r/WallStreetBets, but it only rears its ugly head here through anecdotes. Otherwise, the film opts to not flesh out that particularly unsavory facet of Reddit.

What do “retail investor,” “shorting,” “short squeeze” and “diamond hands” all mean? Unlike the documentaries, “Dumb Money” doesn’t dwell too much on explaining this jargon or myriad internet memes for the layman. It’s still all there – the film is not dumbing down anything. The slang is omnipresent in the dialogue and in the online postings occasionally flashing on screen. Memes and emojis also pop up everywhere. Gillespie and screenwriters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo understand that, while these details imbue color, they are of little consequence. The filmmakers pack a lot of facts and figures into the proceedings but put faith in moviegoers to simply follow along as if observing strangers and bearing witness.

Gillespie’s snappy direction and Kirk Baxter’s nimble editing capture the chaotic and irreverent online culture without necessarily disrupting or distracting from the main stories. There are just enough short bursts of TikTok videos and text postings to give moviegoers a taste without a full sensory assault. The filmmakers also juggle multiple storylines dexterously. Many characters resonate despite the limited time they have on screen.

Dano gives a standout turn. In addition to portraying Gill in his daily life and interactions with family members such as his wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), and brother, Kevin (Pete Davidson), he also uncannily replicates some of Roaring Kitty’s streaming sessions and Gill’s congressional testimony. Those moments truly shine, as they demonstrate the tightrope act of delivering a performance within a performance. Anyone who has tuned into these livestreams with regularity will immediately recognize how pitch perfect Dano is in those scenes.

Perhaps owing to this being a studio project with a budget for music clearance, the rousing hip-hop soundtrack definitely jumps out. Cardi B’s “WAP” is one that particularly and appropriately defines the time period.

Intentional or not, “Dumb Money” has emerged as the first definitive portrait of the COVID era. It encapsulates the masking, the vaccines, the DoorDash-ing, the stimulus payments, the ordinary folks struggling to make ends meet, and the vulturine hedge funds constantly looking for their next prey without considering the human costs. It was the perfect storm. For a moment there, the underdogs found a scheme to game the system that hedge fund managers have exploited to amass their fortunes. Too bad they eventually learn the hard way that the entire system is rigged against them.

“Dumb Money” will be released by Sony in September.

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