As the conventional wisdom goes, you never bet against Wall Street. People spend entire careers at big banks and hedge funds learning how to pick promising stocks and when to dump them, armed with algorithms, data, experience, and systemic advantages that the common man could never hope to compete against. But every so often, everyday people manage to band together and outsmart the elites of the financial world. Dumb Money (2023) explores one such instance: the legendary GameStop stock boom of January 2021.
The movie follows an ensemble cast of characters from across the socioeconomic spectrum, highlighting both how the stock market can affect the lives of people of all stripes and the structural inequities that restrict access to opportunities to amass tremendous wealth. Dumb Money is an engaging and thought-provoking chronicle of internet culture, the pandemic, and the shortcomings of the U.S.’s economic system, but fast-paced storytelling and a hilarious, star-studded cast can’t save the film from its oversimplified view of societal institutions.
The movie opens with hedge fund manager Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) sprinting through the long, sunbathed hallways of his Miami mansion in January 2021 as he catches wind of reports that shares of GameStop, the nearly extinct video game store, are inexplicably skyrocketing in value. As he tries to get to the bottom of it with fellow hedge fund manager (and Mets owner) Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio), the story jumps back in time several months to take a closer look at how the situation unfolded. Enter: Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a solidly middle-class hobby investor from Brockton, Mass., who began posting about his stocks in a Reddit forum called WallStreetBets. In an effort to showcase the human impacts of the seemingly abstract stock market, the film also features Gill’s wife Caroline (portrayed with disappointing one-dimensionality by Shailene Woodley) and his family, including his chronically unemployed and comedic-relief-providing brother Kevin (Pete Davidson).
But rather than simply following Gill’s ascent as he made GameStop (a.k.a. GME) the hottest stock, Dumb Money introduces four other everyday people who, inspired by Gill, invested in GameStop, to varying degrees of success. There’s nurse and single mom Jenny (America Ferrera), GameStop cashier Marcus (Anthony Ramos), and UT Austin students Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold). As we meet each new character, their net worth flashes on-screen; while Cohen’s is in the billions, Harmony, strapped with student debt, is deep in the red, worth -$185 thousand.
The movie argues that the stock market is intentionally and unnecessarily opaque, and seeks to help the non-hedge fund managers among us understand complex financial jargon. From outlining the causes and effects of a short squeeze to guiding viewers through an IPO, Dumb Money succeeds at demystifying Wall Street. But what the film gains in making finance more accessible, it loses in subtlety: Dumb Money relies on direct juxtapositions and overt motifs to articulate even its most straightforward—and occasionally ethically questionable—ideas.
For instance, Dumb Money extends its anti-institutional bent beyond the stock market. Set during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, the movie takes the morally ambiguous (and narratively heavy-handed) route of depicting face masks as a symbol of bureaucratic control. Marcus, a retail worker at a failing GameStop location in an eerily empty shopping mall, butts heads with his boss, a classic power-hungry—but actually powerless—middle manager who constantly nags Marcus to pull up his mask and follow corporate’s out-of-touch sales strategies. After months of his boss reminding him that GameStop owns him, Marcus turns the tables, making hundreds of thousands of dollars off of GameStop stock. As Marcus triumphantly quits his job, he rips his mask off in a final show of supposedly noble insubordination. Masks serve as a motif throughout the rest of the movie as well; as the millionaires and billionaires of Wall Street lounge (maskless, of course) around their beach houses, tennis courts, and private boardrooms, they’re surrounded by mask-clad staff who satisfy their every need.
Dumb Money emphasizes WallStreetBets’s role as a community for its members, especially during the isolation of the pandemic. The movie includes countless videos and posts from Reddit and TikTok and excels at diving deep into the niche online subculture’s distinctive vernacular, from the site’s often vulgar and derogatory language to its nonstop memes and galvanizing metaphors (one video depicts the struggle of the working people against the big banks as that of hyenas against lions, ending with a declaration that “the GME trade is about class warfare”). When the Reddit page is banned for “hateful and discriminatory content” at the height of the GameStop frenzy, the protagonists take the shutdown as proof that powerful institutions are trying to keep them down. But it’s hard to ignore that there was, in fact, problematic hateful and discriminatory content on the site, even if the movie dismisses it as just another quirk of the community.
In its second act, the movie shifts its focus from the Reddit investors to the structures that both enabled and necessitated their rise. In particular, Dumb Money hones in on the insufferable tech bro founders of Robinhood, the stock trading app used by WallStreetBets traders. While Robinhood is credited with making the stock market more accessible to the general public, Dumb Money reveals that the app is less a disruptor and more a continuation of the status quo. Its CEOs, Vladimir Tenev (played by Sebastian Stan, who perfectly captures Tenev’s comical combination of bluster and ineptitude) and Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota), are introduced as prototypical Silicon Valley whiz kids via a slow-motion montage of them climbing into their matching Teslas. But as they gear up for their IPO amid the GameStop explosion, it becomes clear that they’re both spineless and immoral, as pressure from investors leads them to disable the “buy” button on the app, spurring widespread panic and a rapid GME sell-off.
Dumb Money emphasizes how collusion at the top deliberately limits opportunity for everyone else, and no scene better illustrates this tenet than when Gill, along with Plotkin, Tenev, and other key players, is subpoenaed by Congress. In an absurdly funny sequence, the Wall Street set strategizes to hide their elite credentials in their testimonies; Plotkin is told to emphasize his public school education in Maine over his flashy Northwestern diploma and to relocate his Zoom call so as not to showcase his wine collection in the background. It’s amusing to watch the millionaires squirm as Congress grills them until you realize it never seems likely this hearing will change anything—as the movie points out, there’s significant overlap between hedge fund managers and political donors.
Dumb Money packs a considerable amount of action into a sub-two-hour runtime, especially given the number of storylines it follows. This fast pace, coupled with a high-energy soundtrack (did you ever think you’d hear “WAP” and “Seven Nation Army” in the same movie?) and a constant slew of clips from the news and social media, recreates the tension and high stakes of the big bets its characters made—rather than playing with what would be considered chump change at a hedge fund, these people risked their life savings in pursuit of a promising opportunity to make money and be part of something bigger than themselves.
While the film stumbles at times with nuance-lacking blanket statements (and relies on clumsily obvious metaphors to get there), it’s nevertheless valuable as an elucidation of the murky world of the stock market, and as a historicization of a cultural moment in the not-so-distant past. The bottom line: if you, like Pete Davidson’s Kevin, mix up Jimmy Buffett and Warren Buffett, or if you’re simply in the mood for a good underdog story, Dumb Money will be right up your alley.