‘Dumb Money’ Review: A Low Yield Snobs Vs. Slobs Comedy
Dumb Money introduces hedge fund manager Gabe Plotkin (played by Seth Rogen) as he surveys the work being done on an enormous seaside mansion. It looks like he’s building some sort of dream home for his family — but a few moments later, we learn the house is not under construction; it’s under destruction. Plotkin actually lives next door. He wants a tennis court he can walk to, so he bought his neighbor’s place just to raze it.
That’s the Gabe Plotkin (and pretty much all the hedge fund billionaires) of Dumb Money in a nutshell: They can’t make anything without tearing something else down. Is it a heavy-handed metaphor? Yeah. But as depicted by director Craig Gillespie in this reasonably entertaining dramatization of the recent GameStop stock market kerfuffle, Plotkin and his Wall Street cronies ain’t exactly subtle guys.
Gillespie repeatedly contrasts the lavish lifestyles of Plotkin and his allies with the folks they dismissively refer to as “dumb money” — individual stock traders who invest in the market as a hobby or side hustle. While Plotkin enjoys a net worth in the hundreds of millions of dollars, an onscreen title card informs us that financial analyst and YouTuber Keith Gill (Paul Dano) has just $53,000 to his name. As Dumb Money finds Gill, he’s living in a cramped home in Massachusetts with his wife (Shailene Woodley) and daughter. Forget about playing tennis, much less building his own court; Gill gets his exercise running on the local high school track in the middle of the night.
It’s the worst months of 2020, and guys like Plotkin are betting against retailers whose businesses are being decimated by the pandemic by shorting their stock. Gill becomes convinced that one company in particular, the video game store GameStop, is severely undervalued, and he repeatedly relays his reasons why in rambling, goofy videos he posts to YouTube under the name “Roaring Kitty.”
Gill dispenses his advice as he munches on chicken “tendies” while wearing hideous tie-dyed cat shirts and headbands — but his videos catch the attention of the rowdy and proudly juvenile users of Reddit’s r/wallstreetbets board, where other blue-collar workers find his tips and decide to join him in buying GameStop stock. Those who do include Jennifer (America Ferrera), a nurse and single mother, Harmony and Riri (Talia Ryder and Mhya’la Herrold), a pair of college kids saddled with massive student loans, and Marcus (Anthony Ramos), an actual employee of a floundering GameStop branch.
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Marcus’ GameStop is drowning in bureaucracy, represented by a deliciously sniveling Dane DeHaan as Marcus’ by-the-books boss. It’s also completely deserted; this does not look like a business whose fortunes are on the rise, regardless of Gill’s analysis. Still, enough people begin buying their stock — and, at least in Dumb Money, enough of the Plotkins of the world expand their short positions anyway — that when GameStop’s share price does begin to rise, it triggers a frenzy on Wall Street, with Plotkin suddenly hundreds of millions of dollars in debt and small-time investors sitting on hundreds of thousands of dollars of found money. But they can only reap the rewards if they actually sell their stock, and Gill keeps “holding the line,” inspiring his viewers to do the same (and to hurt Plotkin even more).
Dumb Money’s core dynamic of snooty, visor-wearing goobers lounging in their ivory towers while workaday grunts fight over scraps calls to mind the slobs versus snobs comedies of the 1970s and ’80s. It feels at times like Gillespie wanted to make a real-life Trading Places, complete with a Wall Street setting and a similar plot involving working stiffs fleecing the wealthy by means of a short-selling scheme. But he never quite gets there. Gillespie’s approach is a little too restrained, whether because he had to hew to the facts of the real GameStop case for legal reasons or because he simply chose not to go too far over the top. (He had more luck striking the right tone of disgusted fascination with I, Tonya, his previous dark comedy about a sordid true story.)
Rogen is admirably willing to come across as a loathsome oaf, although the film might have been more interesting if it had shown as much of Plotkin’s home life as it shows of Gill’s, and contrasted the two men even further. Really the only scenes that capture that authentic slobs versus snobs juice are the ones featuring Pete Davidson as Gill’s stoner brother, who makes ends meet during the pandemic delivering food, and passes the rest of his time giving his hard-working brother endless amounts of s—. Davidson and Dano don’t look like they’re related (like, at all) but they find a believable brotherly rapport, and they’re especially good in scenes with their straight-laced blue-collar Massachusetts family, including Clancy Brown as their dad and Kate Burton as their mom.
At times, Dumb Money’s many us-versus-them monologues can, like that opening metaphor with Plotkin and his mansions, get way too didactic. Davidson has just the right sort of who-f—ing-cares attitude to make those speeches feel more casual, and thus much more authentic. It’s probably his most promising film performance to date; he could have a long and fruitful career playing these sorts of charmingly cranky sidekicks if he wants it.
As for the rest of Dumb Money, it’s not boring and there are a few decent laughs. But it also does feel like exactly the movie you would expect a big Hollywood studio to make from this material. Unlike the real-life short squeeze it chronicles, it won’t catch anyone by surprise.