If there’s one thing HBO’s Industry and the Oscar-winning The Big Short have taught me, it’s that no matter how many times characters explain the ins and outs of the stock market, I will forever remain immune to its intricacies. I kept thinking about those two projects while watching I, Tonya director Craig Gillespie’s Dumb Money, which manages to strike a chord somewhere between the two as it recounts the GameStop short squeeze phenomenon from January 2021, when a group of amateur traders waged war against hedge fund managers and made themselves rich by leveraging their collective buying power—all in the service of a business that started in strip malls.
At the center of Dumb Money is Keith Gill, a.k.a. Roaring Kitty (Paul Dano), an affable nerd whose penchant for kitty shirts and rambling live videos about his stock portfolio (which he records from his basement) unwittingly leads to an unlikely crusade when he pours all his savings into GameStop stock. What begins as blind faith in the brick-and-mortar business soon becomes a grassroots effort to defy the “smart money” traders and hedge fund managers who are hoping to short the stock and make millions in the process.
Wisely, Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s screenplay (adapted from Ben Mezrich’s book, The Anti-Social Network), doesn’t just focus on Keith’s bumbling attempts to corral the movement he begets. Indeed, the film rightly weaves in and out of the lives of many disaffected workers and students, who find in Roaring Kitty and the GameStop phenom a way to stick it to the man, fight a broken system, and, perhaps, get a piece of the pie they’ve so long been denied. Among them are Jenny, a.k.a. StonkMom (America Ferrera), a single mother of two whose nursing job is not enough to keep her family afloat; Marcus (Anthony Ramos) a GameStop employee barely eking out a living; and Riri and Harmony (Myha’la Herrold and Talia Ryder), college kids who go all in on Kitty’s principled stance. It is through them that we see how Keith’s videos and posts on a subreddit called WallStreetBets balloon out of control and briefly radicalize those who collectively start driving up GameStop’s stock beyond what anyone on actual Wall Street could have envisioned.
Dumb Money also gives us access to those who see themselves as above those petty retail traders. Everyone from the creators of the stock trading app Robinhood (played by Sebastian Stan and Rushi Kota) to movers and traders like Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman, in full rich asshole mode), Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) gets the spotlight as it slowly dawns on the trading establishment that the coordinated campaign that Roaring Kitty and his acolytes are waging may cost them millions. What follows is a fight between the haves (who spend their time trying to demolish the mansion next door to construct tennis courts to better pass the time during lockdown) and the have-nots (who’d rather not spend money on a Heineken when a local beer would do just as well).
In a cheeky move that reminds audiences how the financial world assesses all of us, every introduction to these various players is followed by their net worth. It’s but one of the many details wherein Gillespie makes sure to imbue Dumb Money with a welcome sense of humor that keeps this scathing true-life satire buoyantly alive. He’s helped, of course, by his game cast. Pete Davidson, as Keith’s DoorDash-driving brother, gets laughs from loud moments; my favorite is his attempt at impersonating New York representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Similarly, Ramos makes great use of his comedic physicality in easily the film’s most epic needle drop (to Megan Thee Stallion’s TikTok fave “Savage”), while Rogen and Stan both relish making their respective characters into laughable buffoons whose unearned confidence is only matched by their hubris.
But it’s Dano’s mellowed blend of wide-eyed melancholy and unintentionally deadpan humor that best captures Dumb Money’s tone. This is a uniquely American farcical tragedy about the perils and promises of late-stage capitalism that can only be told through gritted laughter lest we recognize just how depressing a portrait of a broken system the GameStop gasp of a moment was. Indeed, by the time we get the requisite title cards that tell us how each of our characters fared soon after, you’re bound to find yourself rolling your eyes and shaking your head at the impunity on display.
Given the subject matter and the sprawling cast of characters Gillespie is navigating, it’s a testament to Dumb Money’s script (not to mention its editing, courtesy of The Social Network’s Kirk Baxter) how briskly it moves. There’s just enough information to keep us in the know without it feeling like a TED Talk on stock brokerage investments, and I never stopped feeling fully invested in its characters—nor in the larger story they’re illustrating. Smart, playful, and perhaps efficient to a fault (there’s only so many times a rap song can be used as a narrative stitch to take us from one character to another), Gillespie’s latest is an enraging David vs. Goliath, ripped-from-the-headlines tale that deserves to be seen to be believed.
Dumb Money opens in theaters in limited release on September 22