'Dumb Money': A Funny, Irreverent Retelling of Recent History
When it comes to making films based on actual events, timing is everything. If you put something out too soon after the events in question occurred, you run the risk of coming off as disingenuous, as it might come across like you are capitalizing off of real events. If you put something out considerably later than when the events happened, it might work better for you, although context does matter. If your film is focusing on something historically significant that is still being talked about today (or at least adjacent to it), it's probably a safe bet. But if you're dealing with something more niche, it might be a tougher sell. And then you have something like Dumb Money, a film that centers on something rather niche, and is coming out a mere two years after the events its detailing took place. Normally, I wouldn't be interested in something like this, as I would feel like a film tackling something so recent is unnecessary. But something about Dumb Money had me very curious. Between its large ensemble cast, the subject matter, and the irreverent tone promised by the trailers, I couldn't help but be intrigued. I knew there would be a fair chance this film wouldn't work, or it would feel like it is coming too soon after the events at the center of it actually happened. But against all odds, it ends up being rather solid, and the recency actually helps it more than harms it. It's quite funny, fast-paced, and has a very distinct personality that clicked with me better than I thought it would.
Told through multiple characters, this film centers on the GameStop short squeeze that happened in early 2021. It all starts when Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a financial analyst and YouTuber takes notice of GameStop's stock falling. He buys several shares of it, and broadcasts it on his channel. Many people follow his lead, and buy tons of GameStop stock, causing several large investment firms to lose millions upon millions of dollars in the process. This leads to a battle between everyday people and billionaires, as their lives are forever changed due to the squeeze.
Even though I knew this film had a big ensemble, I wasn't expecting its narrative to be as widespread as it is. I felt that it was going to be more about Keith Gill and the billionaires, but it spends much more time with the other characters than I would have guessed. The film spends much of its first act introducing all of its characters, which had me wondering if it was just going to keep doing this for the whole film after a while. The overarching premise isn't one that naturally stretches out to be a feature length film, so it makes sense that it leans into its characters. After all, the title gets its name from a pejorative term used by financial bigwigs in reference to middle and lower class people, so it makes sense that it focuses more on the regular people at the center of the story. The narrative feels spread a bit thin, mainly in the second act, but it functions rather well as an ensemble piece. The focus on the film's characters does make the earlier sections of the film feel exposition heavy, but it makes the back half more satisfying and entertaining as a result.
Perhaps the best thing the film has going for it is its crude sense of humor, which feels perfectly in line with the culture that surrounded the GameStop short squeeze. Much of the action unfolded on the internet, specifically via Reddit and Keith Gill's YouTube channel, Roaring Kitty, and the film makes great use of the chaotic, irreverent posts and commentary that came from it. It's a little strange to see a film that uses both news clips and Reddit posts as archive footage, but this sums up the general tone and energy of the film rather well. The film lets the four letter words fly, and features some raunchy humor, but it is ultimately concerned with the real life implications of the squeeze. It hits a balance between being satirical and biographical, which allows it to not feel overly serious, but doesn't feel too tongue-in-cheek either. A lot of credit is owed to co-writers Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, as they do a great job of capturing the language and attitudes surrounding the film's events, and also lean just enough into the absurdity of them that they elicit some big laughs. I also appreciated how the more modern references of the film don't come across as pandering, and feel rather seamless for the most part. They do a great job of writing dialogue and making the premise work in the context of a feature length film, and I'd argue that their script is the backbone of the whole film.
Craig Gillespie is a director who is very hit or miss for me. He has been tied to some interesting projects over the years, but I never fully know what I am going to get from him, as he is certainly more of a journeyman director. His previous two films, I, Tonya and Cruella were a bit more stylized, so it's kind of nice to see him take on something that is a little less flashy. I couldn't help but be reminded of 2015's The Big Short while watching this, as it covers some similar territory. But while that film is a fourth-wall breaking, hyperactive affair, this film is a bit more restrained in its approach, allowing the action to flow more naturally. It could be that Gillespie doesn't have a signature style, but I think his ability to shift and form to whatever project he's attached to is a positive here, as he is a surprisingly decent fit for the material.
There are a handful of solid performances among the entire ensemble, although some of them do feel underserved. Anthony Ramos is perhaps the weakest link, but it is more in how he is written as opposed to his actual performance. His character is very one dimensional and doesn't give him too much room to do much. I like the idea of his character, Marcos, in the world of the film, as he plays a GameStop employee with dreams of his own, but I honestly think he could have been cut from the film and it wouldn't have made much of a difference. Somewhat similarly, the scenes between Talia Ryder and Myha'la Herrold are a bit undercooked, which is a shame as I do find this storyline interesting. A lot of it is because of the chemistry between Ryder and Herrold, but it also has to do with the circumstances their characters are in, as they both play college students. They are both good in this film, but I just wanted a little more from the material they are given. I was a little surprised that the billionaire characters didn't get all that much screen time, but again, it makes sense given that the film is more concerned with its middle and lower class characters. I feel like Nick Offerman and Vincent D'Onofrio are a bit squandered here, but they are such reliable screen presences that it doesn't feel too egregious. Sebastian Stan is used minimally as well, but he brings a certain smarminess to his character that makes him stand out. Seth Rogen is nicely understated, and plays the somewhat pathetic energy of his character rather well. His performance is one of the better ones of the whole film, and hands down the best of the wealthy characters.
Between this and Barbie, America Ferrera is having a great year, as she is once again doing some great work here. The character of Jennifer that she plays here lacks some depth, but Ferrera does a great job of capturing the reality of the life she lives, and feels so genuine in the process. I particularly enjoyed her scenes opposite Larry Owens, who is so funny and magnetic as Jennifer's co-worker, Chris. I could watch a whole movie about them working together, as they are so great together. Pete Davidson is more or less playing a slightly different version of the types of characters he normally plays, but I can't deny that he has a few of the film's funniest lines. It's funny to see him and Paul Dano play brothers in this film, as they feel like polar opposites, but their scenes together are quite good, and their dynamic works better than I thought it would. As for Dano himself, he is the MVP of the whole film. He utilizes his trademark soft spoken-ness quite well, and makes some subtle choices with his characterization of Keith Gill that I really appreciated. He has a slight Boston accent that is more noticeable in the earlier scenes of the film, but it comes across rather naturally and adds to the character. Dano is playing more of the straight man here, but he captures the essence of the real Keith Gill so effortlessly and fully that he stands out among the cast, and gives an excellent performance.
Dumb Money may falter a bit when it comes to storytelling, but it makes up for this with its strong ensemble, comedic tone, and relatively straightforward manner of dispensing information. It might come across as a bit overly expository in places, but its all in service of making the later moments of the film have a more satisfying impact. The crudeness and general premise might turn some viewers off, but it worked for me far better than I was anticipating. I laughed out loud many times, and appreciated how it didn't feel like it was trying too hard to make a point or pander to the audience. It may not be the most sophisticated or complete account of what happened during the GameStop short squeeze of 2021, but it is certainly entertaining, and has the exact type of irreverent humor that feels well-suited to the events it depicts.