Sincerity and Cynicism Battle on Wall Street in the Rousing ‘Dumb Money’

[Published as part of Geek Vibes Nation’s coverage of the 2023 Toronto International Film Festival.]

You can know nothing about American finance but know all about GameStop stock.

In 2021, a collective of individual investors bought heaping amounts of the video game retailer’s shares on the stock market. Organized around a subreddit known as WallStreetBets, the wave of purchases pushed the stock price to record highs. It was one of the first successful “meme stocks,” responding to hedge funds short-selling it by billions of dollars. The movement to buy and hold the shares sent the market into chaos. Hedge funds lost billions of dollars and Congress held hearings. A video game retailer that every purportedly smart suit on Wall Street counted out sparked a full-blown financial crisis. It sounds just absurd enough for a movie, right?

Of course, Hollywood would jump on the GameStop story, especially given the popularity of big-money films like The Wolf of Wall Street and The Big ShortDumb Money, directed by Craig Gillespie, explores it mainly from the perspective of Keith Gill (Paul Dano). Market analyst by day and red headband-wearing streamer by night, he shares his passion for GameStop and his belief that Wall Street is undervaluing it. He soon attracts a rapidly growing online community of regular people with minimal financial resources. (Wall Street types refer to these investors as “dumb money.”) Trusting him because of his unassuming nature and transparency, they start buying up shares. Gill soon becomes the unwitting face of a massive movement that rankles a close-knit clan of hedge fund managers and chief executives. It becomes an all-out war when the stock hits an all-time high and costs them billions.

Dumb Money is most entertaining when it frames the GameStop stock squeeze in “us versus them” terms. Gillespie bounces breezily between the two sides – the haves and have-nots – and lays out the obscene wealth and privilege gaps between them. If the teeth-clenching irony of a cut from a rowdy pool party to a funny but weary conversation about staggering health costs doesn’t make it clear, the text displaying their net worth certainly will. The direction and visual choices aren’t subtle or surprising. Still, they are very effective, whipping up the rallying energy that runs through the film’s first half. 

Pete Davidson and Paul Dano in ‘Dumb Money’ (Courtesy: TIFF/Sony Pictures)

What is surprising is the film’s thematic potency. Through Gillespie’s structure, Dumb Money becomes a high-octane battle between sincerity and cynicism, even though the representatives for both don’t realize it. Gill is a compelling leader because he cares so much and simply wants to exercise it, cat paraphernalia and all. He may be easy to mock, and the film certainly scores laughs at his expense, but his heart is in the right place. Gill earns the trust of his followers from all walks of life, from college students to overworked nurses. If he holds, they hold. 

Camaraderie is also present in the Wall Street set for starkly different reasons. Hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), as well as Robinhood co-CEO Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan), are united in their greed. They will float billions of dollars between themselves, leverage politics and backgrounds they’ve long abandoned, and bankrupt companies as long as it pays excessively well. Gillespie doesn’t present the one percent as mustache-twirling villains. However, his contrasting their callous disregard with the retail investors’ boot-strapping optimism firmly establishes who to root for. He pairs that strong thematic throughline with a winning soundtrack and easy comedy for a rousing experience.

Sebastian Stan in ‘Dumb Money’ (Courtesy: TIFF/Sony Pictures)

Gillespie stumbles with the film when he loses grip of its thematic thread. When Tenev shuts off Robinhood’s buy option, and the WallStreetBets subreddit shuts down, the film takes a brutal tonal turn. The gravity of those actions – disenfranchising the investors by cutting off essential resources – weighs heavily on Gill’s followers, leaving the film feeling off-puttingly glum. The scales aren’t tipped in Wall Street’s favor; watching Tenev squirm through TV interviews is decidedly unfun. (To his credit, Sebastian Stan sells the discomfort well.) Gillespie doesn’t handle the seriousness well, choosing to borrow The Social Network’s style and dissipating the charge. The wounds aren’t fatal, as he refocuses on his initial framing in the third act and re-energizes the film.

Paul Dano plays a significant role in the third act’s recovery. It seems obvious since he is the ostensible lead, but he is the heart and soul of Dumb Money. Dano’s infectious optimism and gentle but persistent earnestness make him ridiculously easy to back, and he deploys them to fist-pumping effect when Gill testifies before Congress. It’s a lovely, funny, minor-key performance in a movie that practically demands you go broad on the page. The ensemble largely follows Dano’s example, with everyone delivering memorable moments. America Ferrera particularly stands out as nurse Jenny Campbell, turning in her second fierce cinematic takedown of society’s failings this year.

America Ferrera in ‘Dumb Money’ (Courtesy: TIFF/Sony Pictures)

There is nothing about Dumb Money that will shut off the spigot of “too ridiculous and obscene to be true” financial crises anytime soon. (Hollywood is in its own crisis because the studio heads are the hedge fund managers in this film. May irony never die.) What Craig Gillespie does well is give space and dignity to the often-forgotten people steamrolled by the crises. Wall Street will continue to feed creatives’ appetite for these stories as long as there is money to cynically make. However, they may think twice about how “dumb” it is.

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