The stock market can often seem less like a financial index and more like an opaque narrative, one with winners and losers, risk and reward, and not necessarily linked to any company’s inherent, real-world value.
What happened in January 2021 with the pandemic-threatened mall chain GameStop, the subject of Craig Gillespie’s enjoyable finance comedy “Dumb Money,” is a case in point: a struggling business’s share price becoming a proxy class war between secretive hedge-funders counting on its doom to line their pockets, and a scrappy, social media culture of low-level investors trying to boost its value and destabilize Wall Street. The gambit and its fallout provoked awe, speculation, bankruptcies and even congressional hearings.
The movies love a good David-vs.-Goliath story, which gives “Dumb Money” (named for how hedge guys insultingly tag day traders) a satisfying populist tinge to go along with its Altmanesque multi-character comic vibrancy. After the rollicking but hero-deficient “The Wolf of Wall Street” and “The Big Short,” Paul Dano’s nerdy warmth makes for a sweetly centering tonic as this tale’s headband-sporting analyst Keith Gill, whose earnest, basement-recorded YouTube posts under the moniker Roaring Kitty turned GameStop into a rallying cry against a rigged financial system. A year after risking his life savings ($53,000) on a business he viewed as undervalued — yet many assumed was as dead as Blockbuster Video — a frenzy of buying saw Gill’s positions in GameStop reach $48 million.
The screenplay by Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum, adapting reporter Ben Mezrich’s 2021 book “The Antisocial Network,” is a model of how-it-went-down storytelling, detail-rich but personality-driven. What’s impenetrable about the stock market — the manipulations, the rule-changing, the clandestine deals — is made crystal-clear.
Gill’s benevolent steadfastness is supported by his loving, tolerant wife (Shailene Woodley) but mocked by his shiftless brother (a very funny Pete Davidson), who urges him to cash in. And while nervous hedge fund short-seller Gabe Plotkin (a shrewdly against-type Seth Rogen) sweats things out in his Florida mansion while staying connected to his billionaire mentors (Vincent D’Onofrio and Nick Offerman), an orbit of likable, ordinary GameStop investors rides a wave that feels like a movement.
Every tap of “buy” on a smartphone feels like a vote for meaningful change: There’s a cash-strapped Pittsburgh nurse and single mom (America Ferrera), a savvy GameStop cashier (Anthony Ramos), and a pair of college students and ardent Roaring Kitty fans (Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold). Straddling the middle is user-friendly brokerage company Robinhood, whose smooth-talking co-founder Vladimir Tenev (Sebastian Stan) comes under scrutiny for consequential actions during GameStop’s meteoric rise.
As with his deftly empathetic handling of “I, Tonya,” Gillespie captures a hot-topic milieu of desperation and excitement populated by schemers. His love of actors is a plus, but his understanding of how they mix foibles, charms, and fears is uncommonly good. It’s also what makes “Dumb Money” memorable as a depiction of life during the pandemic, both how we interacted with each other — masked and cautious, locked down and lonely — and why a starkly clarifying atmosphere of isolation and indignation could create a groundswell of righteousness. It’s a feeling distilled in a wonderfully handled late-night gas-pump exchange between Ferrera and another customer. When the world’s telling you to be alone, even friendly small talk with a stranger can seem like its own essential refueling.
In the end, “Dumb Money” wants us to believe a revolution was afoot , but it’s too low-key (even with “WAP” as an unofficial needle-drop anthem) to truly convince us, especially with how things played out. But in its thumbnail sketches simmering with risk, humor, and melancholy, illuminating a world of worsening disparities but spikier solidarity, it entertainingly takes stock.
Rating: R, for pervasive language, sexual material and drug use
Running time: 1 hour, 44 minutes
Playing: In limited release