A YouTube financial advisor kicks off a cultural revolution in Dumb Money, which opens in Prague cinemas this weekend after premiering at the Toronto International Film Festival last month. This breakdown of the 2021 GameStop short squeeze may not be The Big Short, which it will be compared to, but it does an excellent job of capturing a specific moment in time apart from all the Wall Street shenanigans.
That moment was only two-and-a-half years ago, as the events covered in Dumb Money largely unfolded in the first few quarter of 2021. But they also occurred at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, something that the movie goes to great lengths to remind us of in almost every scene.
The pandemic may have isolated people, but a strange kind of nostalgia brought them together: nostalgia for the brick-and-mortar video game retailer GameStop, in an era where its primary business model was quickly disappearing. GameStop even (attempted to) remain open during the pandemic, claiming it was an essential business because it sold computer equipment like mice.
With the end near for physical copies of video games and GameStop’s lucrative used copies, and inner turmoil within the company itself, hedge fund managers like Gabe Plotkin (played by Seth Rogen in Dumb Money) were quick to short GameStop stock, selling shares they didn’t have at future prices predicted to be low.
In The Big Short, Christian Bale‘s Michael Burry bet against mortgage-backed securities, predicting the 2008 real estate bubble and making bank when it occurred. In Dumb Money, the Wall Street guys are shorting GameStop’s stock… and artificially devaluing it, says financial analyst Keith Gill (Paul Dano). In the short-term, any way, he likes the stock.
Gill has no sway in the market, but he does have YouTube channel under the name Roaring Kitty, and posts to Reddit’s infamous r/wallstreetbets under the name u/DeepFuckingValue. He shares his data on Excel spreadsheets and posts his stock portfolio daily, and soon gets buy-in from the social media horde.
The titular Dumb Money refers to private investors like Gill who toss their money into the market without the resources of the Wall Street elite. But when there’s enough dumb money going in a particular direction, it has sway of its own, and Gill and others have set the stage for a short squeeze: pushing up the value of GameStop’s stock to levels that Plotkin’s Melvin Capital will struggle to repay.
In the end, Melvin Capital goes bust, Gill makes tens of millions and goes silent, and Wall Street traders are a little more cautious about their next short. But the bitter truth of Dumb Money is that two years later, GameStop’s stock is now lower than before the short squeeze: the hedge fund guys were ultimately right, and the money made and lost in GameStop stock evened out in the end.
But where Dumb Money succeeds is in the portrayal of all the supporting characters, real and invented, during the brief affair. Vincent D’Onofrio plays New York Mets owner Steven Cohen, who has his money tied up with Plotkin’s hedge fund; Nick Offerman is Citidel owner Ken Griffen, who initially bails Plotkin out; and Sebastian Stan and Rushi Kota are the founders of Robin Hood, the app that brought financial trading to the Reddit crowd and allowed them to trade for free (or so they thought).
Dumb Money also features a nice cross-section of America with characters who buy into the GameStock short squeeze including a registered nurse (America Ferrera), a pair of debt-ridden college students (Myha’la Herrold and Talia Ryder), and a GameStop employee (Anthony Ramos) under the thumb of his manager (Dane DeHaan).
He’s one of many characters in this ensemble, but Dumb Money also does a nice job of showcasing Gill’s character as the kind of home-grown, altruistic soul that Plotkin is desperate to appear to be. Shailene Woodley as his supportive wife, Pete Davidson as his Doordasher brother, and Clancy Brown and Kate Burton as his out-of-the-loop parents, all offer solid support.
It’s a little strange that Dumb Money, unlike The Big Short, goes to great lengths to detail all these supporting characters with their own narratives, other than focus on detailing the ins and outs of the main Wall Street narrative. But Craig Gillespie, working from a script by Lauren Schuker Blum & Rebecca Angelo (adapted from Ben Mezrich‘s The Antisocial Network) correctly identified that the GameStop short squeeze itself wasn’t all that interesting, and shifted the focus to its causes and effects, and those who watched from both sides.
For those familiar with the GameStop short squeeze, Dumb Money isn’t likely to tell them anything they didn’t know; for those unfamiliar with the events portrayed here, this is a good-enough recap. But with its presentation of America during the pandemic nicely capturing a particular time and place, Dumb Money is likely to play better decades from now, when this authentic portrayal of 2021 may seem like weird, wild stuff.