“Dumb Money” – Cha-ching!
People love to fantasize about striking it rich in various ways. Winning the lottery, nailing the parlay at the track, becoming a YouTube star, or inheriting a fortune from cranky old Aunt Ethyl after she falls into a pile of fur coats and suffocates to death. What’s that? Aunt Ethyl is okay? Thank goodness.
Of all the various ways to get rich, playing the stock market might be the one people believe they have the best chance at. Like the recent explosion in legal sports gambling, investing in stocks has become radically easier thanks to the Internet. And, like all those other get-rich avenues (including good old-fashioned casinos), the stock market is rigged to favor the house. Oh sure, we the underdog have a chance to win it big, but that chance is tinier than Aunt Ethyl’s generosity.
In Dumb Money, Keith Gill (Paul Dano) is the underdog. Keith is a lower-middle-class financial analyst by day and a vlogging webcaster by night. Under the excellent monikers Roaring Kitty and DeepFuckingValue, Keith discusses his personal financial choices in YouTube videos and posts on a subreddit page called WallStreetBets. Believing that GameStop stock is undervalued and the company itself is worth investing in, Keith invests his life savings ($53,000) in the stock and posts a screenshot of his portfolio to prove to his viewers the investment is real. As the weeks and months go by, he continues to vlog about the stock’s progress, using his portfolio spreadsheets as the background in his videos to maintain credibility. And Keith’s investment risk is real, as his wife Caroline (Shailene Woodley) and baby are in this boat with him.
Meanwhile, the villains of the story are betting the opposite of Keith. Hedge fund managers Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) have heavily invested in short sells of GameStop stock, believing the company is on the brink of bankruptcy. Plotkin and Cohen are always featured talking to each other on the phone while walking around their ostentatious mansions. Occasionally, another hedge fund manager Kenneth C. Griffin (Nick Offerman), will call in to offer smug support. Offerman-as-Griffin perfectly oozes contempt and condescension at his less-rich counterparts, but is willing to help them in the same way the witch is willing to help Hansel and Gretel.
Finally, we have the rest of the common folk, a.k.a. retail investors, derisively referred to as Dumb Money by the villains. The common folk are you and me and nurses and salesclerks and massively indebted college students (America Ferrera, Anthony Ramos, Myha’la Herrold, and Talia Ryder in this movie’s example) who have proverbial pennies to invest in the stock market. As Keith’s videos start to gain attention and new followers, the previously mentioned common folk invest what various amounts they can in GameStop stock, inspired by Keith’s easygoing honesty.
As Keith and company follow the slow, steady, upward climb of their stock, we are treated to updates to each person’s value. In an ingenious bit of inspiration, the film introduces every character we meet by giving us their name and net worth (in dollars) printed on screen, ranging from Keith’s solid $90,000 to Keith’s brother’s (Pete Davidson) dozens of dollars to the college students’ six-figure debts. The 99% of us can easily relate to those people. And we also get the same for the hedge fund managers, with their eight- and nine-figure fortunes. The 99% of us can easily hate those people.
In case you weren’t aware, Dumb Money is based on recent true events. While the common folk were invented for dramatic purposes, Keith and the hedge fund trio are actual people. As the stock price continued to climb and GameStop didn’t go bankrupt, the hedge fund managers started to panic about a “short squeeze.” In very basic terms, the hedge funds were all losing massive amounts of money while the commoners were actually realizing the American Dream. Adding to the story is that the investing turned into a cause. When the subreddit community realized that the rich hedge fund managers could just bail each other out, the community vowed to hang on to the stock and keep buying to drive the price ever further. The film does a great job of building the tension by bouncing between the various characters, making us wonder if the commoners are going to cash out and the hedge fund managers are going to go broke before the reality that rich people rarely ever lose comes crashing down on the community.
As good as the story is, the performances really make the film. While Dano does a decent job of delivering a protagonist that we can get behind, my favorite characters are the trio of hedge fund managers and the two college students. As much as I enjoyed Ferrera’s nurse and Ramos’ GameStop clerk, the two college students’ throwing caution to the wind was so much more fun to root for. Almost as much fun as rooting for Plotkin to end up under a pile of trash like the Duke brothers from Trading Places.
Perhaps the best aspect of the movie is that the filmmakers subtly make the film better by doing the opposite of a couple of things that normally make movies worse. One is that they open the film in a chaotic and off-putting way, using abrasive music and quickly jumping between a bunch of characters. They throw a bunch of dissonant stuff at us really quickly, practically daring us to walk out of the film before it’s even really started. The other is that most of the characters have almost no development beyond their name and net worth. Character development is usually key to get the audience to sympathize with characters. In this case, we need the commoners to stay common. Anything more and they might feel artificial, even special. That’s why showing us their names and net worth works so well – that’s all we need.
Despite knowing how the real-life story played out, I was still captured by the film. Why wouldn’t I be? I love an underdog story as much as anyone, especially one where the underdog has a chance to strike it rich. Just like me, if I can find a couple more fur coats to add to the pile.
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back because this investment was worth it.