Even though there have been at least two documentaries on the topic, the GameStop short-squeeze remains an intriguing case of Wall Street manipulation. Occurring in early 2021, the stock price for GameStop shot up when a legion of Reddit investors kept buying. The result was a case of hedge fund managers getting rightfully screwed and corrupt brokerages who still manipulated the system. It was a mini-revolution against Wall Street that dealt more of a tent against corruption than a piercing hole.
Dumb Money attempts not to make so much sense of this event as it does put a human face on it. It doesn’t go the route of The Big Short by trying to explain the details behind this event. What it does is follow a handful of characters in this rich-versus-poor battle to understand better what is at stake. Director Craig Gillespie finds the drama and humor in all of this, even if he doesn’t quite cover all the bases.
Keith Gill (Paul Dano) is more or less the hero of this story, having helmed the WallStreetBets subReddit and streaming his stock trading strategies. While everybody thinks little of the video game store GameStop, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, Keith continues to buy stock. But the few who listen to his livestreams and observe the public data he’s collected start to see the brilliance of his strategy. This ranges from the stressed nurse Jennifer Campbell (America Ferrera) to the disillusioned GameStop employee Marcus (Anthony Ramos) to the bitterly enthused college couple Riri (Myha’la Herrold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder).
When Keith’s stock buying starts making the dam burst, the rich sweat. Hedge fund manager Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) fears losing his plush lifestyle, significantly when his losses range in the billions. His contemporaries, Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Kenneth C. Griffin (Nick Offerman), hardly break a sweat. They believe fervently they can survive this. They know they can whip their scapegoats of Robinhood founders Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota) can be coaxed into dirty dealings with their stock trading app.
The film works best in framing this class struggle as an event that left a mild yet considerable dent in the corruption of stock manipulation. Keith found the best way to play this game and let every downdraught person during the pandemic join him on his quest to buy and hold on to the stock. For those who had little during the pandemic, it was a hopeful moment where an online movement felt like they mattered. Now, news broadcasts and hedge fund companies would view them as a threat.
I recall one social media post during this era from a user who specified they have nothing else in life, and this is all they have left to fight for. That’s a sad sentiment, but also one that says something about the age that we live in. This film wants to hold up the lower-middle-class investors as the heroes, showcasing how some made a profit while others did not. It wants you to be angry but also appreciate the absurdity of this situation that made the rich think twice when the government knocked and the SEC swept everything under the rug.
Where the film falters significantly is how uncritical it remains of the movement. The biggest ordeal for Keith within his revolution is whether or not he should sell when his shares reach the tens of millions. But the faults of the subreddit and memes that followed this movement are rarely questioned. Consider how the Wall Street online warriors brand themselves using words like retard and autistic as their edgy vernacular. This is brushed off as internet slang. Then, consider how some in this Reddit community have made death threats. This is tossed to the side as being a few bad apples. But when all of this leads to the attack of the WallStreetBets Reddit being taken down for hateful content, it’s hard to find favor with the few leaders who did nothing to address this aspect. Even when the subReddit goes down, Keith’s wife (Shailene Woodley) quickly points out how the forum wasn’t that bad. Was it, though? Sure, it’s unfair that Reddit chose that specific time to take down that forum, but plenty of evidence was mounted to warrant the removal.
The film lacks a keener commentary on the grey of this story. I’ve seen documentaries on this topic that try to hold up its perpetrators as legends of an online war against the rich elites. Yet this film merely scrapes the surface of the questionable aspects of this movement to the point where I almost wish it was like The Big Short. Had the film a more knowing grip on future events, it would probably highlight how Elon Musk, who is prominently featured in this film’s events more than once, is not the tech-bro hero some of the investing devout think he is. Musk interviews a Robinhood founder, but it’s not as toothy as the other interview in the film. As Musk has proven with his acquisition of Twitter, having him being seen as some instigator of this movement against billionaires is a bizarre logic that is never once mocked or questioned with the gift of hindsight.
Dumb Money has a blunt honesty that mainly works in trying to portray the GameStop short-squeeze with a human angle beyond the crunching of Wall Street numbers and memes. It’s almost too distant from being highly critical of this material, where its bite mostly comes from the fast pacing, rap music, and the low-effort ribbing of Keith’s lazy brother (Pete Davidson). As far as biopics about money go, this is entertaining, with good performances and an easy-to-read script on its subject matter.