“Dumb Money is a surprisingly effective, easily watchable modern-day dramedy.”
- Paul Dano's quietly charismatic lead performance
- An entertaining cast of supporting characters
- A consistently funny, breezy script
- Only a surface-level examination of its story
- Several poorly timed needle drops
Many have correctly noted that most of the midbudget dramedies that are produced nowadays seem to either take place in the distant past or in a contemporary time frame that is so undefined it might as well not matter. Dumb Money, in many ways, feels like a response to this particular trend. Set in the COVID lockdown era of 2020 and early 2021, the film invites viewers back to a period that will likely still be fresh in the minds of many who see it. Furthermore, it brings a story to life on the big screen that is about as recent as a scripted film can possibly adapt.
Telling such a contemporary story is a considerable risk for a movie to take. Few writers and directors, after all, have proven themselves capable of truly exploring the complexities of their current eras onscreen. That’s something that only considerable hindsight usually affords artists the ability to do, and the potential for cringeworthy, on-the-nose metaphors and diatribes increases exponentially the closer to the present a film’s setting gets. Despite that, Dumb Money is surprisingly cringe-free, and its observations, while shallow, ring no less true now than they might have two years ago.
Directed by I, Tonya and Lars and the Real Girl director Craig Gillespie, Dumb Money follows Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a modest stock analyst who gains attention online when he begins sharing his interest and investments in GameStop, a once-popular video game retailer that was, like a lot of companies, driven to difficult times by the COVID-19 pandemic. In doing so, Keith paves the way for his niche interest in GameStop’s stock to become a full-blown online movement — one co-opted and partly organized by the members of a subreddit known as r/WallStreetBets.
From there, Dumb Money quickly expands its scope, focusing on an assortment of middle-class Americans who are inspired by Keith, as well as the hedge fund investors and company CEOs who stand to lose millions of dollars in the face of GameStop’s rising stock price. Key among its supporting figures are Jennifer Campbell (Barbie‘s America Ferrera), a nurse committed to taking Wall Street and its stock market manipulators to task; Marcos (Anthony Ramos), a GameStop employee desperate to leave his dead-end job behind; and Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio), Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), and Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), a trio of hedge fund managers desperate to keep GameStop’s stock price down.
Dumb Money spends most of its second and third acts bouncing between its characters’ perspectives — slowly offering viewers more details about how much each stands to gain and lose from GameStop’s collectively managed success. Tonally and structurally, the film feels deeply indebted to dramedies like The Big Short, though it lacks the same energy, unbridled rage, and quiet sense of tragedy as that 2015 Oscar nominee. What it lacks in subtlety and bite, however, Dumb Money makes up for with its pure entertainment value and easily digestible pieces of insight into what, for many, may have been nothing more than a viral news story they briefly heard about in 2020 and 2021.
The film clearly communicates the Middle America versus Wall Street conflict at the center of its story, and it accurately believes that its sentiments about the country’s worsening wage gap will be in line with most of its viewers’ opinions right now. Dumb Money, consequently, doesn’t feel the need to overly explain its plot or argue the merits of its own ideas. The film presents the facts of its characters’ lives as plainly as it can, and it gives itself the space to highlight not only the absurd greed of its primary Wall Street figures, but also the underdog quality of its middle-class heroes’ shared plight.
Like many of Gillespie’s movies, there are stylistic flourishes that don’t work as well as others, including several poorly timed needle drops that are more distracting than anything else. Fortunately, these mistakes aren’t enough to take away from the quiet confidence of Gillespie’s direction, the subtle elegance of Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s script, or Kirk Baxter’s smooth, buoyant editing, which keeps the film afloat and moving nicely along even during its most meandering second-act detours. While all of its performers capably bring their characters to life as well, Dano is the steady, soft-spoken heart and soul of Dumb Money, and he’s perfectly cast as its intelligent, self-effacing lead.
Opposite Dano, Shailene Woodley and Pete Davidson turn in welcome, warmly affectionate performances as Keith’s wife and brother. Together, Dumb Money’s cast keeps the film modestly grounded in the perspectives and emotions of its characters — even in the moments when it’s busy throwing out its most pointed jabs at its arrogant stock market overlords. Its criticisms are undoubtedly obvious, but there’s also never been a better time than now for a major Hollywood film to point out the insidious absurdity of America’s wealth machine.
Dumb Money may get its title from a Wall Street slang term about day trader investments, but what it successfully argues is that there’s nothing dumber than greed — and few things that deserve to be fought quite as fiercely.
Dumb Money is now playing in theaters nationwide.
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