In late 2020 and January 2021, a motley collection of small-time investors, loosely led by a nerdy YouTuber and Reddit poster who went by the name of Roaring Kitty, delivered an emphatic poke in the eye to the Wall Street elite. A flood of money and a feeding frenzy on the stock of GameStop (a struggling chain of US video game stores) inflated the share value, with brutal consequences for several multibillion-dollar hedge funds. It was billed as a bite back against the cynical practice of short-selling (essentially when a trader bets on the decline of a business) and as an event that heralded the democratisation of the stock market, hitherto a heavily fortified industry controlled by the ultra-wealthy and ultra-privileged.
Now, director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya, Cruella) tackles the subject with a vigorous, ripped-from-the-headlines docufiction starring an affable Paul Dano as Keith Gill, AKA Roaring Kitty. There’s a lively bustle to Dumb Money, which successfully corrals a host of disparate supporting characters and parallel story strands. But this is exactly the kind of movie that you would expect from Hollywood, itself a heavily fortified industry controlled by the ultra-wealthy and ultra-privileged. It’s a triumph-of-the-underdog narrative that offers a gloss of rabble-rousing appeasement but which conveniently breezes past the fact that there has been little in the way of real and lasting change. The haves still have; the have-nots cling to a taste of what might have been.
If there’s a showy, Adam McKay-style brashness to the storytelling, it’s balanced by quality performances
Gillespie has already proved himself as a director with a talent for tapping into the electric energy of an unfolding cultural phenomenon, and then delivering the story in briskly accessible soundbites. He deftly unpicked the mess of contradicting voices behind the Tonya Harding ice-skating scandal with wit and verve but not a whole lot of depth; then did the same, albeit over several episodes, with Pam & Tommy, the Hulu series about Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s whirlwind romance and the sex tape furore that followed.
While this story lacks the pop cultural pull of celebrity names, the film breaks down the GameStop short squeeze into the kind of language that even stockmarket illiterates (me, for example) can grasp, and gives us a richly drawn cast of characters to follow. And if there’s a showy, Adam McKay-style brashness to the storytelling (his 2016 Oscar winner The Big Short is an obvious reference; the music choices tend towards grinding, in-yer-face hip-hop), this is balanced by the attention to character detail and by the quality of the performances across the board.
The standout among these is Dano, an actor who, with his striking yet slightly potato-like countenance, is a comfortable fit in uncool everyman roles like that of Keith. Dano leans into the unapologetic geekdom of a man who surrounds himself with barely ironic cat-based kitsch. His Keith is a softly spoken dork whose tumbling enthusiasms sometimes overtake his ability to get the words out. Also great is Pete Davidson, playing Keith’s deadbeat brother Kevin, a DoorDash delivery driver who dedicates much of his spare time to smoking weed and trolling his older sibling online. And in world-weary GameStop clerk Marcus (Anthony Ramos) and frazzled nurse Jenny (America Ferrera), we get a pair of down-on-their-luck dreamers to cheer for.
It’s fair to say, however, that aside from the Wall Street players (a panicked, sweat-sodden Seth Rogen; a treacherously slippery Sebastian Stan), the cast of characters has been carefully curated to be likable and sympathetic. And, judging by the scroll of crude, emoji-happy, borderline imbecilic Reddit posts that trawl across the screen, this is unlikely to be entirely representative of the Keith Gill fanbase.
But while the film might have slightly defanged its depiction of the users of the subreddit r/wallstreetbets – the site on which Keith shared details of his investment portfolio – it is undeniably perceptive about the insidious influence of social media as a whole. Ultimately, Dumb Money may not be as revealing about the financial markets as it is about the rallying power of the internet. Capturing the online whisper network that builds a “meme stock”; playing out in the Venn diagram intersection where base human greed meets the propulsive fervour of digital groupthink – in this at least, the film is absolutely on the money.