‘Dumb Money’ takes smart, satiric look at absurdity of GME short-selling

By Kirk Boxleitner
Posted 4/10/24


I'd meant to see "Dumb Money" near the end of last year, but recent absurdities in the news had me feeling weirdly nostalgic for the comparatively quaint online firestorms of the COVID …

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‘Dumb Money’ takes smart, satiric look at absurdity of GME short-selling



I'd meant to see "Dumb Money" near the end of last year, but recent absurdities in the news had me feeling weirdly nostalgic for the comparatively quaint online firestorms of the COVID era.

Indeed, while the art of cinema has progressed to the point that a number of movies have incorporated the realities of social media into their narratives by now, albeit to varying degrees of storytelling success, "Dumb Money" is the first film I've ever seen in which Reddit, as a forum, has legitimately earned a supporting cast member credit.

Because the filmmakers wisely leaned on many of the online memes themselves to convey how retail traders went from merely following a longshot potential financial opportunity, by taking an initially obscure YouTube influencer's advice that they should purchase shorted stock, to evolving into a populist political movement, explicitly calling for class warfare.

When suburban livestreamer Keith Gill recommended on the subreddit r/WallStreetBets that folks of similarly modest monetary means to himself should buy up shares of the GameStop chain of stores in early 2021, it was deemed "dumb money" by the head honchos of the hedge fund investment firms who'd been short-selling stock in that chain to begin with.

But all the idiotic, immature, humorously tongue-in-cheek images and animations posted on Reddit, comparing the everyday retail traders to the underdogs in countless come-from-behind victories in movies and TV shows, got those self-styled online slobs psyched up, and steeled their resolve to hold onto their shares, thus driving GameStop's value through the roof, and personally costing the hedge funds' snobbish high-rollers billions of lost dollars.

Those who are reading this and already comparing "Dumb Money" to Adam McKay's "The Big Short," sight unseen, are not wrong, since "Dumb Money" almost assuredly intentionally strikes the same seriocomic tone as "The Big Short," thanks in no small part to a talented cast who are somehow both typecast and yet cast against type, all at once.

Seth Rogen's schlubby, unshaven, vague amiability has arguably earned him as much favor among any number of "common man" moviegoers as Nick Offerman's tight-mouthed, subtly self-satirizing stoic masculinity, so it's impressive that "Dumb Money" is able to negate both actors' considerable natural charisma by weaponizing their signature personality traits against them.

Thus, Rogen's portrayal of Melvin Capital Management founder Gabe Plotkin makes him seem thoughtlessly entitled, cowardly and callously out-of-touch with the average American, just as Offerman's rendition of Citadel founder Ken Griffin makes him come across as self-satisfied and soullessly calculating, without Ron Swanson's thick mustache to mute his smug smirks.

Meanwhile, Paul Dano's soft-featured capacity for conveying uncomfortable social awkwardness is so notable that Matt Reeves tapped it to fuel Dano's depiction of the Riddler as comparable to the "Zodiac" serial killer in 2022's "The Batman."

And yet, in "Dumb Money," Dano employs his low-voiced diffidence to indicate that Gill's nerdy fixations with kittens and underlying data trends are the misleading outward behaviors of a man who, without ever calling attention to himself, has never taken his eye off the ball of what he could ultimately accomplish.

"Dumb Money" makes clear that Gill has been a lifelong striver, by having Dano share scenes with "Saturday Night Live" alum Pete Davidson as Kevin Gill, Keith's hilariously hopeless slacker brother, as well as with Kate Burton and Clancy Brown as Elaine and Steven Gill, Keith and Kevin's gruff but loving working-class parents.

The fact that Keith Gill's sister died during the pandemic, in 2020, is briefly hinted to be one of the factors that contributed to his emerging interest in GameStop's stock, which fits what we can discern of his upbringing, because when Richard Burton's daughter is your mom, and the Kurgan from the first "Highlander" film is your dad, the message you're going to get from your folks growing up is that depression is dispelled by doubling down on hard work.

Whether he meant to or not, Dano plays Gill's real-life adoption of the online handle "Roaring Kitty" as akin to Paul Atreides naming himself after the desert mouse of Arrakis in Frank Herbert's "Dune," which likewise fits how "Dumb Money" subsequently casts Gill as the Muad'Dib of poor dorks across the country, whose rallying cries of "Diamond Hands" (with which to hold fast to their GameStop shares) recall the zealous loyalty of Muad'Dib's fiercest warriors among the Fremen.

By the time you've watched Dano's Gill testify virtually before Congress, and basically beat Wall Street's would-be "Masters of the Universe" at their own games, you'll believe Shailene Woodley as Caroline Gill, Keith's wife, when she admiringly tells her long-haired, red bandana-wearing husband, "You're a [expletive] gangster."

Look for fun appearances by Sebastian "Bucky" Stan, drawing from his real-life Romanian heritage for his performance as Vlad Tenev, the oily and overly rehearsed Bulgarian co-founder of the "Robinhood" financial services company, and Vincent "Kingpin" D'Onofrio as hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, who loosely inspired the character of Bobby Axelrod, played by Damian Lewis, on the Showtime series "Billions."