DUMB MONEY Review: The GameStop Short Squeeze of 2021 Gets Its Own Movie

Director Craig Gillespie's newest biographical comedy-drama stars Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D'Onofrio and Seth Rogen.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
DUMB MONEY Review: The GameStop Short Squeeze of 2021 Gets Its Own Movie

In Wall Street parlance, “dumb money” refers to retail (individual) investors.

A derisive, contemptuous term, it’s meant to convey the natural superiority of institutional investors (e.g., hedge funds, mutual funds) who, through sheer brute force, can make and break markets and, more importantly, stock prices.

With inside — though legally not “insider” — knowledge, hedge funds with billions in assets can make their already wealthy clients even richer through “short selling,” betting huge sums of money that a stock price will tank. It’s a bet that institutional investors, blind to ethics and morality, have won time and again. It’s capitalism in its purest, most unadulterated form.

For a few weeks in January 2021 (aka Insurrection Month and Pandemic Year Two), hedge funds literally lost billions, the result of a combination of unexpected factors beginning, but not ending,  with a then little-known, Brockton, Massachusetts-based financial analyst, Keith Gill, a Wall Street subreddit for retail investors, and a so-called “short squeeze” where those same retail investors didn’t just refuse to sell their holdings in a failing brick-and-mortar chain, GameStop, they doubled and tripled their holdings, forcing institutional investors to cover their billion-dollar bets, in turn driving up the stock price to unsustainable highs.

All that and more are chronicled in Ben Mezrich’s non-fiction book, The Antisocial Network, and now, Dumb Money, a broadly entertaining, lightly satirical comedy-drama. Directed by Craig Gillespie (Pam and Tommy, I, Tonya, Lars and the Real Girl) from Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s adaptation of Mezrich’s book, and with comparisons to Adam McKay’s The Big Short and his seriocomic, genre-breaking exegesis on the 2008-2009 Recession and its root causes inevitable (greed, certainly, but also a pyramid-like scheme involving under-collateralized mortgage-backed securities), Dumb Money takes a more conventional and ultimately, a more satisfying approach to similar themes.

Gillespie initially focuses on Gill (Paul Dano, in his usually intense, hyper-focused mode), a slightly bored analyst relegated to working from his basement during the pandemic, his YouTube channel, and his subreddit posts central to the events of January 2021. The oddly cat-obsessed Gill expounds on his reasons for buying and holding GameStop stock during the pandemic (it’s undervalued, for one), but his principles, supposedly based on study and analysis, depend more on instinct and feeling than anything quantifiable, let alone scientific or mathematic. His playful demeanor as well as his openness about his investments, however, win him an increasing pool of converts.

Multiple threads place Gill and a handful of his zealous, cult-like supporters on one side of the stock market battle and several hedge fund billionaires, including Steve Cohen (Vincent D'Onofrio), the founder and manager of a key hedge fund, Point72 Asset Management, and owner of the New York Mets; Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), the founder and CIO of Melvin Capital Management; and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), the CEO of Citadel LLC and Citadel Securities, on the other. They are, one and all, clearly depicted as cartoon-like, villainous figures, obsessed with increasing their wealth and their respective social positions among the billionaire class.

Dumb Money also interweaves several part-time retail investors and full-time Gill acolytes, shifting between Jenny (America Ferrera), an “essential worker” (i.e., nurse); Marcus (Anthony Ramos), a low-level GameStop employee; and Riri (Myha'la Herrold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder), University of Texas at Austin college students. Gillespie introduces each new character with their net worth (or lack thereof), a caustically funny jibe at the so-called American Dream and the majority of middle-class workers and students it’s left behind, most permanently.

While Dumb Money’s screenplay doesn’t delve deeply into psychological motivations of the individual characters depicted therein, it’s clear Gill’s followers want something — someone — to believe in during a seemingly endless pandemic. That they find what they’re looking for, along with the “irrational exuberance” inherent in the risk-taking, gambling-like nature of the stock market, makes all the more sense, if not on an intellectual level, then on an emotional one.

Focusing on a fast-moving event or series of interconnected events spread out over weeks and months is challenging enough, but Dumb Money also has to convey just enough background information about the stock market and, more specifically, the details around the short squeeze, for audiences to understand what happened, if not necessarily why it happened, on a basic level. In that much, it succeeds, though chances are, slightly befuddled moviegoers will head to Google and Wikipedia at the first opportunity to research the ins and outs of shorting stocks in general and the short squeeze of 2021 specifically.

Dumb Money also works hard, probably harder than it needed, on humanizing Gill, giving his individual storyline a family-focused sheen. He’s a family man with an incredibly supportive wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), retired working-class parents, Elaine (Kate Burton) and Steve (Clancy Brown), and a perpetual screw-up for a brother, Kevin (Pete Davidson essentially playing himself again), plus an adorable toddler to represent the brighter, more hopeful future Gill wants for his family.

The script also gives Gill a relatable chip on his shoulder: Without a degree from a prestigious Ivy League university (only a small, local one) or a network of like-minded professionals, he’s been left adrift, forced to improvise his way into wealth and influence.

For all of its triumphant glee at the temporary, transitory fall of a handful of hedge funds and their smug, self-entitled, over-confident owners/CEOs, Dumb Money concludes on an expectedly downbeat, sour note as the end credits roll, reflecting an economic and political reality where the stock market continues to be rigged in favor of the millionaire and billionaire classes. David (Gill) and his supporters may have won this one battle, but they’re fated — via capitalism’s invisible hand — to lose the class war.

Dumb Money opens today (Friday, September 15), in New York and Los Angeles, expanding on Friday, September 22, to other markets in North America. Visit the official site for locations and showtimes

Dumb Money

  • Craig Gillespie
  • Lauren Schuker Blum
  • Rebecca Angelo
  • Ben Mezrich
  • Paul Dano
  • Pete Davidson
  • Vincent D'Onofrio
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America FerreraAnthony RamosCraig GillespieDumb MoneyNick OffermanPaul DanoPete DavidsonSebastian StanSeth RogenShalaine WoodleyTalia RyderVincent D'OnofrioLauren Schuker BlumRebecca AngeloBen MezrichBiographyComedyDrama

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