The system is rigged. There is no hope for the little guy. The playing field is not level.
A prevailing sense of anger and inequity is at the heart of Dumb Money, Craig Gillespie’s frantic, crowd-pleasing dramedy about a real-life stock-market soap opera in which the David outfoxes the Goliath. “You got rich dudes pissing in their pants right now,” Pete Davidson’s character tells Paul Dano’s, the David.
The film chronicles the 2021 roller-coaster ride of an undervalued stock (GameStop, a struggling chain of video game stores) and a gang of small-time investors who put the squeeze on hedge-fund fat-cats. But, according to Gillespie, the story is broader.
“There’s this real fear and frustration of what’s going on in America, and that the government is not helping with anything,” said the Australian-American director, who spoke to The Globe and Mail during the Toronto International Film Festival, where Dumb Money premiered. “This film is part of an ongoing conversation about the disparity of wealth.”
The film, then, is Capraesque: Mr. Gillespie goes to town on Wall Street.
Dumb Money refers to the contempt big-time traders – the smart money – have for their amateur counterparts. “Retail traders always lose,” we hear in the film.
They don’t always lose, though, hence Dumb Money, which is based on Ben Mezrich’s 2021 book The Antisocial Network, about a loosely affiliated gang of online private investors and internet trolls who took down one of Wall Street’s biggest hedge funds in a squeeze-the-man scheme that led to frenzied trading, white-knuckled anxiety and, eventually, a congressional hearing on stock-price manipulation.
Dano is Keith Gill, a nerd and idealist from working-class Brockton, Mass., who handed out investment advice on YouTube and Twitter as Roaring Kitty. To him, the GameStop stock was the cat’s meow: his initial US$53,000 investment skyrocketed by more than 100 times and sparked other retail traders to follow his lead.
When that ragtag group of investors – in the film, a nurse, a student, even a GameStop employee – resisted the urge to sell off their stocks for a quick profit, the hedge funds that bet on the stock to fail took colossal losses.
The challenge for Gillespie and writers Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo was to make an accessible film about a subject average filmgoers have little understanding of or interest in. Director Adam McKay faced the same conundrum when he made 2015′s The Big Short, a zany comedy about the housing bubble that triggered the 2007-08 financial crisis. McKay went gonzo, having celebrities such as Selena Gomez address audiences directly on the intricacies of such insider baseball as subprime mortgages.
But Gillespie, whose credits include 2017′s I, Tonya and 2021′s Cruella, went the other way. He kept the lingo low and the passion high. “The stock market was the backdrop, but what I was trying to capture was this moment of frustration,” he explained. “It was the emotional undercurrent, this general dissatisfaction going on this country, and it got funnelled through GameStop as a mouthpiece. That’s what’s interesting to me.”
Gillespie experienced the energy firsthand. His young son was working on Wall Street during the GameStop stock panic. “He was living with us, telling us blow by blow what was happening,” said the 56-year-old native of New South Wales, his accent matching his signature newsboy cap. “There was an outrage about the system, and that’s what I wanted the viewer to walk out of the theatre with.”
That said, the Wall Street titans in Dumb Money are not villainized. There is a certain hubris to Steve Cohen (played by Vincent D’Onofrio) and Kenneth Griffin (Nick Offerman), but they are hardly tying down damsels to train tracks. And Gabe Plotkin, portrayed by Seth Rogen, is almost a sympathetic figure as he sheepishly tells his wife about the fortunes he is losing daily.
“Black and white is not that interesting to me,” Gillespie said. “It’s the system we’re commenting on, not the players.”
(According to the Financial Times, Griffin sent the film’s distributor, Sony Pictures, legal letters protesting his portrayal.)
The novice investors of Dumb Money are all young, their nerves fraying by the second as they agonize over life-changing money with their fingers hovering over the sell button on their phones and laptops. Gillespie lived through that himself, with his son. “You’re a parent, you’re concerned,” he said. “What are you doing? When are you going to sell?”
He says his son got out at the perfect time. Gillespie also jumped on the GameStop bandwagon but didn’t make out as well – he got in too late. Some dumb money is smarter than others.