By Will Sloan
Back during the height of the pandemic, when the fall prestige releases included a movie where Lucille Ball proved she was not a communist and an adaptation of Hillbilly Elegy (2020), I often wondered if the American film industry would ever get around to addressing the overwhelming poverty and despair of the current moment. Of course, the gears turn slowly in Hollywood, and for better or worse, here is the belated response: a ripped-from-2021’s-headlines dramatization of the GameStop short squeeze, in which thousands of mostly small-time investors coordinated to juice the dying retailer’s stock price. Successful zeitgeist-catchers like The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) and The Big Short (2015) postulated that Wall Street is rigged and the elites are laughing at you, but this would-be crowd-pleaser adds a little “up with people” sweetener.
With Fincheresque beige-and-grey colour palette, and dialogue that falls in and out of Sorkin-speak, it’s not hard to guess the specific movie that director Craig Gillespie watched for inspiration (as if to underline the point, the Winklevoss Twins are credited here as executive producers). But unlike The Social Network (2010), Dumb Money sorts its characters neatly as heroes and villains. Goliath appears in the form of Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), a hedge fund founder and short speculator, introduced complaining that his tennis court is taking too long to build. The David figure is Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a basement-dwelling live-streamer who marshals the Reddit rabble into class warfare. Around these two moral poles, various two-dimensional characters orbit: college kids saddled with student debt; a put-upon GameStop clerk; a working-class nurse who’s holding onto her stocks longer than she should; the Wall Street gargoyles who hold Plotkin’s purse strings; and the tech-bro founders of the investment app Robinhood, who are closely aligned with the forces they claim to disrupt.
Following this story as it played out in the news, my sense was that it had been a fun few days, but the speed with which Robinhood cracked down proved yet again that the house always wins. Gillespie and Co. have come to the opposite conclusion: closing text informs us that Gill sparked a “revolution” that is only just beginning, because hedge fund managers now fear and monitor the Redditors they once ignored. One wonders why this is supposed to be good news—oligarchs are not lurking on message boards because they want to spread the wealth. We’re also told that new legislation will make it a little harder for big investors to pull off Big Short shenanigans, which strikes me less as a levelling of the playing field than a well-functioning system continuing to adapt. The film’s forecast of “revolution” is contradicted by the fates of its own characters: a few student loans paid off here, a few million lost there, a few CEOs who weren’t prosecuted, a few sacrificial lambs, and a populist ringleader now tamed and living in seclusion. I’d rather Jordan Belfort just give us the finger.