erik lundegaard


Monday January 08, 2024

Movie Review: Dumb Money (2023)


I began getting anxious about a quarter of the way in. Took a while to figure out why.

The bad guys are short sellers, men such as Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), who are betting against a company called GameStop during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. They live in mansions, have expensive tastes. They’re not necessarily dicks but they’re not us, either. They float above it all. They’re worth billions. Fuck 'em. (BTW: Is Rogen doomed to play men named Plotkin the rest of his life? Feels like it.)

The good guys are led by Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a working class schlub, who frequents a subreddit called WallStreetBets under the pseudonym “Roaring Kitty,” live-streaming his opinions. And his main opinion is that GameStop is a good bet. “I like the stock!” he says, over and over, without really explaining why a brick-and-mortar company in the midst of the internet/pandemic age is a good bet. Yes, as he says, kids will want to play more video games during a pandemic. But will they visit a store at a dying mall to buy them?

Anyway he convinces a disparate group of the young and working class to join him in his quest to save GameStop and screw over the short sellers. Among the ones we see:

  • Jenny (America Ferrera), a nurse in debt
  • Marcos (Anthony Ramos), a GameStop employee
  • Riri and Harmony (Myha’la and Talia Ryder), two hot college students in debt

They all invest, mostly via an app called RobinHood. And the stock goes up! They’re not only beating back the bad guys but getting rich! Some are up a quarter mil! Gill is a millionaire!

Here’s the problem. Their strength is holding the line as a group, but they can only get at this money, at this prize, if they don’t hold the line—if they cash in as individuals. The scheme, as portrayed here, was built to fail. It was pretending an individual game (Wall Street) was a team game. That might work for a time, particularly if people are in it for laughs, but all bets are off when real money enters the fray.

And that’s why I was feeling anxious.

Unmerry unpranksters
Maybe the anxiety was also this: Is this even a good thing? GameStop’s stock was worth a few bucks in 2019, rose to about $20 when this all started, and reached a peak of … wait for it … $483 a share in late Jan. 2021. Is that an accurate valuation? The movie doesn’t care. “Woo woo, screw the jerks! Power to the people!”

Hell, what we see of GameStop? The demands store manager Brad (Dane DeHaan) makes of employee Marcos Garcia (Anthony Ramos) about pushing secondary products, etc.? They seem like a typical asshole corporation run by people without vision. I’m not even talking about poor Brad. He’s not making these policies; he’s just a middle man. But the movie, and Marcos, treat him as a villain, too. It’s another example of the film’s short-sightedness. (Nice seeing Dane DeHaan again, even in a small, unsympathetic role.)

In real life, wasn’t there more of a snarky vibe to this GameStop business? Most of the investors were in it for a laugh, right? They were anarchic pranksters thumbing their noses at the system. Here, most are true believers. They're dull and stolid. Thanks, no thanks. 

Once Plotkin realizes he’s losing playing solo against a team, he rallies his own team, including hedge fund managers Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman) and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio), who are initially amused at his predicament, and then alarmed as they get sucked into the morass. At one point, the RobinHood app, run by Vlad Tenev and Baiju Bhatt (Sebastian Stan and Rushi Kota), stops working. You can’t buy GameStop stock on it; you can only sell. A glitch? Collusion? Either way the app boys come off as empty vessels who are in over their heads.

But fortunes are made. The college girls sell high. I guess Marcos does the same, though we don’t see that. Jenny, the nurse, gets screwed over. She’s too loyal to Keith and the stock. She’s too loyal to someone she doesn’t know and something she doesn’t use.

My old friend
I like Keith’s speech, via Zoom, to a congressional committee, on how we act like we know how Wall Street works but we don’t. We don’t get shorting. We’re the suckers. We’re the dumb money. World without end. 

The movie’s happy ending (for everyone but Jenny) implies that the hedge funds now have to pay attention to the dumb money because this kind of pile-on—this very specific social-media pile-on—could happen again. I guess? Not satisfying, though.

I’m curious what this movie could’ve looked like with a 1970s sensibility; if writers Lauren Shuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (“Orange is the New Black”), and director Craig Gillespie (“I, Tonya,” “Million Dollar Arm”), and all of the production companies associated with its making (Columbia, Sony, Black Bear, Ryder, Stage 6), hadn’t insisted on a happy ending. If it had allowed its heroes to be dicks and pranksters using the tech to have a smile at the expense of the suits. If it had been ambiguous about its morality. If, in the end, Keith had given us an uncertain look in the back of the bus while Simon & Garfunkel played on the soundtrack. Hello darkness, my old friend.

Posted at 09:25 AM on Monday January 08, 2024 in category Movie Reviews - 2023