Written by Tom Augustine.
For the most part, independent filmmakers in America have only a few routes to grow their careers in the modern day. They can jump on-board an IP cruiseship, a Marvel or a Star Wars or what have you, in the hopes of trading a commercial success for an artistic one further down the line (it’s not something that happens very often these days, but there you go). Alternatively, you could move into television, which during the peak TV era offered at least some semblance of creative freedom, a haven for filmmakers like the Duplass brothers. Or, like one-time indie filmmaker David Gordon Green, you can carve out a peculiar niche that recontextualises your whole career. In Green’s case, this trajectory led to flashy horror sequels like his Halloween trilogy (count me as a fan of the last of those films, Halloween Ends) and this month’s woebegone Exorcist: Believer. In the case of Craig Gillespie, the one-time director of Lars and the Real Girl, we have gradually seen a transition to Scorsese-lite, working class trash-epics, usually recounting true events. They’ve been pretty hit-or-miss; while Pam and Tommy, for all it’s controversy, was a slick and generally enjoyable sleazefest-turned-feminist reckoning, films like I, Tonya and the godawful Cruella demonstrated a filmmaker handy with flashy stylistic tics but lacking in meaningful substance. For my money, the best Gillespie’s ever been was with the little-seen remake of ‘80s vampire pic Fright Night, which was engagingly lean, nasty and fun, the perfect blend to match Gillespie’s approach.
For the most part, Gillespie’s latest, Dumb Money, is closer to the filmmaker’s better, more fulfilling work, reconstructing recent history to deliver a moment of working class victory in a time when the poor and the displaced are in desperate need of a win. The film has been accused of, and arguably does, sand over some of the less palatable parts of the true story of the Gamestop stock market surge, but with fairly good reason – Dumb Money is a piece of modern pop mythmaking, one that bends the truth in an attempt to reach for a larger, innate understanding of the way the game of capitalism is rigged to prey on the vulnerable. By assembling a broad ensemble cast of familiar faces –but not megastars (give or take a welcome Seth Rogen), there’s a humbleness to this story that makes its whiz-bang plot mechanics go down easily.
It’s the height of the pandemic, and Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a small town stock-trading hobbyist, invests his entire life-savings into the Gamestop company, a flailing storefront business selling gaming software. Frequenting the Reddit group r/WallStreetBets and appearing on his Youtube channel under the name RoaringKitty, Gill’s sincerity and intense belief in the stock quickly snowballs into a movement among amateur investors and working class denizens. The responding support ensures that the stock quickly explodes, subverting the expectations of wealthy, parasitic Wall Street types cursed with absurd confidence that their best laid plans will never go awry. Gill and his supporters are not the type who are allowed to get rich in the modern stock trade – rather, they are the ones who get preyed upon, and the backlash from the powerful to the movement is swift and intense. Gillespie juggles a range of narratives, breathlessly leaping from one story to the next, weaving a decently constructed tapestry that suggests the immensity of this David and Goliath battle happening online and on the streets.
Recounting the breathless battle of wills that saw Gamestop stocks briefly flip Wall Street on its head during the pandemic, Craig Gillespie’s latest is an ensemble recounting of recent history in the vein of Adam McKay’s didactic message comedies like The Big Short and Vice. It fares better than those films, though, thanks to a strong cast and emphatic direction, though the film’s political incisiveness leaves a bit to be desired.
Paul Dano, one of modern cinema’s most dependable character actors, is an ideal fit for Gill, a soft-spoken, appreciably kooky obsessive whose blind faith in his gut instinct drives him into a Robin Hood-style stardom, as the head of a movement that, Dumb Money suggests, is largely made up of sympathetic, struggling average joes. There’s America Ferrera as nurse and RoaringKitty superfan Jennifer, furious at the shitty hand she’s been dealt; there’s Anthony Ramos as a Gamestop store clerk watching on with glee; rising stars Myha’la Reynold and Talia Ryder as college students drowning in debt; not to mention Pete Davidson and Shailene Woodley as Gill’s brother and wife, respectively, who ground Gill’s fateful trading with real-world stakes. On the other side of the aisle, Rogen, Sebastian Stan, Vincent D’Onofrio and Nick Offerman all acquit themselves well as arrogant, greedy Wall Street overlords whose worlds start swiftly crumbling around them. The film’s intention with such an immense lineup of recognisable faces is to cast the net wide, to suggest that the RoaringKitty Gamestop saga was a unifying mission, one that revealed that the most profound division in today’s society is between rich and poor, regardless of race, sex or creed.
The film is also intent on capturing some element of the way working class movements have shifted into online culture. The film utilises real footage of RoaringKitty fans via TikTok or Youtube, and frequently splashes r/WallStreetBets memes across the screen. Dumb Money is adept at capturing the national mood, and indeed one of the more fascinating aspects of the film is the way in which it comes to serve as a proto-period piece of the COVID era, even though it’s only a couple of years removed from the height of the pandemic. Gillespie evokes the deadened, disheartened atmosphere of those pandemic years with uncanny precision, pointing to the way this immense shift in the thrum of global society allowed for something like the Gamestop Saga to even happen. The conclusions that Dumb Money finds are a little less than the sum of their parts – in the film’s eagerness to position the Gamestop Saga as an unqualified win for the little guy, the film papers over the slightly more dispiriting truths of the saga – that much of the Reddit audience were less than savoury, trollish characters is one thing, but more glaring is the fact that, for all the discomfort the Saga briefly put the goons on Wall Street through, the big guy is still in charge. The financial gains the characters made are great, within a certain, capitalist context – but the larger truth of capitalism exists in spite of these specific characters’ gains. The presence of the Winklevoss twins (of Facebook fame) as key producers on the film is a clue to the film’s shortcomings as a radical document – it’s certainly bracing to see their names appear in the credits after a couple of hours of wealth-bashing. It’s this contradiction that makes Dumb Money a film that falls short of pure fist-pumping joy – but also, perhaps inadvertently, makes it a far more interesting work.
Dumb Money in cinemas now.
Movie title: Dumb Money (dir. Craig Gillespie)
Movie description: Recounting the breathless battle of wills that saw Gamestop stocks briefly flip Wall Street on its head during the pandemic, Craig Gillespie’s latest is an ensemble recounting of recent history in the vein of Adam McKay’s didactic message comedies like The Big Short and Vice. It fares better than those films, though, thanks to a strong cast and emphatic direction, though the film’s political incisiveness leaves a bit to be desired.
Date published: October 26, 2023
Country: United States
Author: Lauren Schuker Blum, Rebecca Angelo, Ben Mezrich
Director(s): Craig Gillespie
Actor(s): Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Vincent D'Onofrio, America Ferrera, Seth Rogen
Genre: Biography, Comedy, Drama