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Dumb Money: An Entertaining Recap of the GameStop Stock Boom Phenomenon

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Remember “stonks”? The GameStop Stock Craze and the Rise of Dumb Money

A Reddit term of art that became suddenly ubiquitous during the heady, strange days of the 2021 GameStop stock craze, a so-called meme stock insurgency launched by online trolls (and some regular folks just looking to make a buck) that disrupted markets, shuttered a hedge fund, and gave Wall Street a rare fright.

The Popularity of Modern Economic Story-Lessons

In the last near decade, we’ve seen projects about the boom and busts of BlackBerry and WeWork, as well as the hideous encroachment of OxyContin. The American economy has arrived at a sick place, both fast-paced and dying (for those not at the tippy top, anyway). It makes sense that we should want to see things that explain why this is—things that commiserate, that gaze in terrible awe at just how rigged and self-serving the whole system is.

The Film “Dumb Money”

The new film Dumb Money, which premiered here at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday, tries to offer hope amid all this depressing mess. A little, anyway. Perhaps the campaign it depicts—amateur day traders counteracting hedge fund short-selling of GameStop, a large video game retail chain, by driving the stock price higher and higher over the course of months mostly by using the doomed and faux-altruistic trading app Robinhood—was but a blip of disruption in the plutocrats’ hoarding what’s left of the world’s wealth. But a blip isn’t nothing. And again, one hedge fund was felled.

A Tale of Empowerment

Director Craig Gillespie, of I, Tonya and Cruella, very much wants Dumb Money to be a tale of empowerment—so much so that he might tweak the details a bit (and downplay some of the darker aspects of the online community that coalesced around the phenomenon) to gin up a sense of stirring populism. But he makes a convincing case that this was some kind of revolution to admire. We may not like the attitudes and outlooks of all those holding the pitchforks, but we can at least agree that Wall Street sharks (and the empty rainmakers of Silicon Valley) are the living worst and deserve to have their hands slapped away from the levers of power, however briefly.

An Ensemble Piece

Like The Big Short, Gillespie’s film, written by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, is an ensemble piece, tracing an array of lives as they soar and stumble amidst these financial seisms. Swept up in the movement are America Ferrara as a nurse trying to get out of debt, Myha’la Herrold and Talia Ryder as college sweethearts who hope to earn enough to pay off their student loans, and Anthony Ramos as an enterprising GameStop store employee.

The Role of Keith Gill

There is also, of course, Keith Gill, a.k.a. Roaring Kitty—the YouTuber and Redditor who was the first to turn the masses on to the GameStop stock opportunity. His gentle nerdiness is made even more gentle and whispery by Paul Dano, whose opacity—we don’t really know the why behind all this—is perhaps more a problem of script than performance. In general, Dumb Money is spare in its study of motivation beyond basic wants; what makes Gill tick is never made clear, while his acolytes become mere cultish addicts watching their phones with glee and, later, alarm.

The Lack of Financial Mechanics Explanation

The financial mechanics aren’t carefully delineated either: we get only the basic gist of what is actually going on. Dumb Money doesn’t need Margot Robbie giving us a mini-lecture from a bathtub, but some further explanation might have deepened the film’s instructive might.

A Complex Shading of Arguments

The film would also be richer, more nourishing if it more complexly shaded its argument. Hedge fund bad, little guy good is a serviceable enough thesis. But the existence and function of the stock market itself is only lightly questioned in the film. The position of Dumb Money may be that even if it is at least partly to blame for the cratering of middle class life in America, among other evils, the market exists, and thus must be available to all—so that any one of us might get rich in a fashion somehow more ethical than the organized cartels currently dominating things. Somewhere down the line, though, those ordinary folks who strike it big could become the very monsters they’re pushing back against. (Or maybe their grandchildren could.)

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