Being clever is difficult. That isn’t meant to sound patronizing, but it doesn’t take a genius to recognize how hard it is to operate on multiple levels while harnessing keen insight. This is especially true in entertainment, where many different masters must be served by one creation. The work must be entertaining, it must make some amount of financial sense, it must be original to some degree, and (in the best-case scenario) it must be about something slightly more than a superficial read. “Dumb Money,” the latest film from director Craig Gillespie, delivers on some of these items, but it’s all fleeting while remaining strictly on a surface level. Strong performances, an interesting topic and a compelling mixture of archival footage and staged content aren’t enough to escape the film’s insistent mediocrity nor linger past the credits.
Keith Gill (Paul Dano) is an unassuming guy who lives a normal existence with his wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), and their baby daughter. He spends his days working a boring job as a financial analyst and his nights on Reddit and YouTube imparting his stock knowledge and investment plans. One day, Keith decides to buy a bunch of stock in GameStop, a rapidly dwindling company that Wall Street is banking on failing. For a multitude of reasons, including Keith’s genuine nature, this inspires regular people to also begin buying stock in GameStop, including a single mother who is barely scraping by as a nurse (America Ferrera), an actual employee of GameStop (Anthony Ramos) and an undergrad couple (Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold) who decide to join in the movement. Meanwhile, hedge fund managers, like Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), assume these rubes don’t know what they’re doing and start shorting GameStop stock, betting it will fall apart. When the unexpected begins to happen, Wall Street does not take kindly to being outsmarted by the regular people.
“Dumb Money” is fine. In fact, it’s aggressively okay. There is only one element to the film that is genuinely bad (which I’ll get to momentarily), but the rest is simply all right. Gillespie has crafted a movie that is entertaining enough in the moment but completely forgettable once it’s over. These are dramatic moments based on real-life events, yet there are no standout sequences that linger with audiences. Think of the reporting scenes in “All the President’s Men,” Wozniak confronting Jobs in “Steve Jobs” or the reenactment of a literal ideological debate in “The Big Short.” Each of these are fictitious, embellished versions of actual events, yet they become associated with what happened — and possibly even usurp the reality.
Gillespie has shown that he’s able to take true stories and make them stylized, engaging and memorable, like with “I, Tonya,” which acknowledges its sensationalized nature but still reveals the modern mythos of Tonya Harding. None of that is on display in “Dumb Money.” Again, it’s not like the film is ugly or poorly made — it just never rises above its mediocrity. For example, the imagery of director of photography Nicolas Karakatsanis — who has crafted terrific shots in movies like “Triple 9” and “Cruella” — is supremely flat and utilitarian in this film. There’s nothing inherently wrong about the look of the movie, but there’s no real flair to any of the shots nor anything that reveals true artistry or conveys much more than the basic information that the scene provides with its script.
That screenplay, by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (based on a book by Ben Mezrich), does a fine job of broadly sketching out all the characters, usually giving them a good line or two that elicits a chuckle and a moment of doubt that evokes sympathy, but the structure is pedestrian and the dialogue is serviceable at best. Pete Davidson (as Keith’s screwup brother) shines the brightest of all the cast, but that feels like damning with faint praise, as it doesn’t take that much to stand out in this leveled field of mediocre humor. These are the type of jokes that your parents would laugh at, finding them an impressive but innocuous rejoinder to the events swirling around all the characters.
The only truly “bad” part of “Dumb Money” is that you get the feeling the filmmakers didn’t understand the point of their own story. In real life, the mega-rich were fine and ultimately went unpunished for their shady practices against retail investors, with the only real correction to the system being patched holes to prevent such a populist run again. Yet the final text of the movie suggests that a revolution was started by these individual investors that cannot be contained — a popular uprising that will forever change how trading stocks is perceived. But that’s not the case; the house won. Yes, a few people made serious money at the expense of these hedge funds, but ultimately, the rigged game still went in the favor of those institutional investors who were protected from any culpability. The last 15 minutes make this point very clear — no one was held accountable for the bad faith (and downright illegal) practices of the big organizations, and all they did was install someone to monitor the internet to see if any such initiative happens again. To suggest that this whole event was a win for the little guy is misguided at best and cowardly at worst. It feels like the filmmakers couldn’t stomach such a resolution, so they grasped for some straw of victory, betraying any sense of insight that occurred previously.
“Dumb Money” isn’t awful, but there are no real standout sequences or anything beyond a clever way to recount a historical event. Coupled with its complete lack of resolve to address the negative outcome, this ends up making it bad in a different kind of way. A fun compilation soundtrack and star-studded cast aren’t enough to overcome such pedestrian and uninteresting work, resulting in an unfortunate misfire that will quickly be forgotten.
Starring: Paul Dano, Shailene Woodley, Pete Davidson, America Ferrara, Anthony Ramos, Seth Rogen, Sebastian Stan, Myha'la Herrold, Talia Ryder, Dane DeHaan
Director: Craig Gillespie