Review: Dumb Money — Movies for the Rest of Us with Bill Newcott

Dumb Money tells the story of the basement investment blogger behind the 2021 GameStop stock rally.

Dumb Money (Claire Folger/Columbia/Sony Pictures/TIFF)

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Dumb Money

⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

Rating: R

Run Time: 1 hour 45 minutes

Stars: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, America Ferrera, Nick Offerman, Seth Rogen, Shailene Woodley

Writers: Lauren Schuker Blum, Rebecca Angelo, Ben Mezrich

Director: Craig Gillespie

Reviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival


Maybe you’re like me: When the characters in finance-driven movies like Dumb Money (and Wall Street, and The Big Short) start talking about yield curve inversions and gamma squeezes, your eyes glaze over and you mutter, “Yeah, I don’t get it. Just tell me if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.”

This is why, in our house, my wife handles the bills.

Incapable of discerning the language spoken by the characters in these films, I turn to reading their eyes: Are they are widening in excitement or are they narrowing in suspicion? I listen to the intonation of their expletives, knowing full well any given profanity may be delivered in triumph or in agony.

Happily, if the movie is a good one, if I’m invested in the characters, clues like that are all I really need. Such is the case with Dumb Money, the story of the basement investment blogger behind the 2021 GameStop stock rally, which accomplishes its Money-For-Dummies-Like-Me mission admirably.

Paul Dano stars as Keith Gill, the deer-in-the-headlights YouTube celebrity who, in the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, led millions of small investors as they digitally stormed the walls of Wall Street, changing forever (maybe) the notorious practice of stock market short selling.

In the late 20-teens, Gill, while working for a large Boston investment firm, noticed that large finance companies were undervaluing GameStop, the venerable shopping mall video game store.

The Wall Street wizards were doing something called short selling, which numerous people have patiently attempted to explain to me, but which always ends up sounding like a cattle auctioneer on amphetamines. Bottom line, far as I can tell: While “good” investors make money by building up companies and benefitting everybody, short sellers only benefit if a stock’s price is driven into the ground. Don’t ask me how that happens. All I know is, “short selling” is finance movie shorthand for “evil.”

Short selling is also a risky business. In the case of short selling GameStop, the Wall Street suits failed to reckon on Gill, who saw continued value in the store and told his thousands of web followers he was going to invest heavily in it. They followed suit, and those penthouse vultures never knew what hit them.

Director Craig Gillespie is a master of the outsider movie (Lars and the Real Girl; I, Tonya; Cruella), and in Dumb Money, he is set loose on an era when just about everyone was, in essence, on their own. Smothering under the blanket of COVID, the characters in Dumb Money ride empty buses and wander abandoned shopping malls, all the time hidden behind masks, morphing into latter-day Wild West desperadoes.

For Gill’s isolated followers, the call to buy GameStop stock — and clip the wings of the Wall Street vultures — becomes a desperately needed show of common cause that just might, coincidentally, make them all rich.

Dano, with the face of a slimmed-down Pillsbury Doughboy, exudes a “what, me worry?” vibe that plays nicely against the escalating angst of Wall Street’s most notorious hedge fund managers (Vincent D’Onofrio and Nick Offerman). Seth Rogen strikes more sympathetic chords as financer Gabe Plotkin, largely because the film chooses to give Plotkin a human side, playing with his four children and commiserating with his wife (Olivia Thirlby) even as his investments unravel.

Gill, too, is assigned a rich family life: His wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), at first encourages her hubby to pursue his basement YouTube podcast as a way to blow off steam from his office frustrations. His doting parents (Clancy Brown and Kate Burton) and street-smart brother (Pete Davidson) are still reeling from the COVID-era death of a daughter and sister. While they all at times wonder if Gill might be a little crazy, never do they doubt his essential goodness.

Of course, Gill’s plan works only due to the commitment of his unseen followers, who refuse to sell even as they see their stock value first rise, then begin to fall as Wall Street engineers an underhanded counteroffensive. A gallery of appealing actors fills those ranks, particularly America Ferrera as a nurse who, despite mounting debt, stays the course.

For more than a century, Hollywood’s gallery of preferred villains has morphed with the times. But from that first flickering image of a black-coated landlord twirling his greedy mustache, big money men have remained the movies’ most constant bad guy.

Here he is again, pounding on keyboards instead of tenement doors. And here, as always, is the little guy, fighting back with wit and resourcefulness.

Anyone can understand that formula. Even me.

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