I’m no investor, but there have been times when I’ve walked into some booming retail outlet and thought: “This might be worth buying a few shares.” It’s hard to believe anybody could ever have felt that way about a GameStop store, which in the movie, Dumb Money, comes across as a lifeless, understocked franchise that seems about as exciting as the local bus depot.
This was pretty much the opinion of Wall Street hedge fund, Melvin Capital, which bet confidently against GameStop in 2021, expecting the share price to crumble. It was the now-familiar strategy of short selling, presuming that a stock will decline, and profits ensue. It’s become an everyday occurrence on the amoral markets, which usually sees the smart money reap hefty rewards while the dumb money goes down the gurgler.
So far so bad for the small investor, who has none of the contacts and resources available to the big firms, but on this occasion, the tables were turned by an eccentric character named Keith Gill, who posted stockmarket tips on YouTube under the sobriquet, Roaring Kitty. Against all the evidence, Keith believed GameStop’s shares were undervalued, and evangelised on-line to a growing band of followers.
Keith’s disciples on YouTube and Reddit took up the charge and bought GameStop. As more people joined in, the investment became a kind of popular cult, and the price climbed ever higher – just when Melvin Capital expected it to plummet. Part of Keith’s appeal, aside from his daggy wardrobe, red headband, and a full set of kitsch “kitty” knick-knacks, was that he freely posted his own share portfolio on-line, showing everyone where he was winning or losing.
As more and more listeners started buying, GameStop’s price soared. Beginning at less than US$5 it would peak at US$483. In the process it would make money for those small investors who managed to sell at the right time – and tank Melvin Capital, which lost billions as “the stupidest people in the world” simply kept buying the same stupid stock and refused to bail out.
Aussie director, Craig Gillespie, who showed a talent for comedy in I, Tonya(2017), does a proficient job of keeping this complex, real-life tale in motion. On the way, he negotiates a path between the jargon of the Reddit crowd and the buzz words used by the hedge fund tycoons. He also keeps us informed about who is making or losing money, and how much – a feat accomplished by graphics flashed up on the screen.
Most importantly, Gillespie weaves a human-interest story out of a tangle of encounters that usually take place at one remove. Roaring Kitty and his fans never meet face-to-face, while the big investors mostly communicate via the telephone.
There’s a large helping of caricature in Gillespie’s approach, with Paul Dano playing Keith as a mixture of gormless Everyman and stubborn crank. Pete Davidson is perfectly cast as his slacker brother, while Shailene Woodley plays Caroline, Keith’s wife, who watches his adventures on the stock market with wonder and trepidation.
Then there are the hedge fund guys, chiefly Gabe Plotkin of Melvin Capital, played by Seth Rogan; and two even bigger sharks – Steve Wynne (Vincent D’Onofrio), who keeps a pet pig in his mansion; and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman), a supreme example of America’s untouchable financial aristocracy who is happy to let everyone else eat cake. Part of the fun of this class-conscious saga, is putting the luxury lifestyles of the big financiers alongside Keith and Caroline’s modest desire to improve their lot in suburbia. The extravagance of Gabe’s lifestyle induces tremors of Schadenfreude when it all comes crashing down.
Another piece of the puzzle is Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) and his buddy, who run a trading app called Robinhood, that’s used by most of the small fry. Vlad plays a tricky hand, being caught between the professionals and amateurs, until he eventually makes a move that will put the brakes on GameStop’s bull run.
The final set of players are the small investors who jump on Keith’s bandwagon, boosting the GameStop price, and watching their personal wealth skyrocket – so long as they hold their nerve. America Ferrara plays a nurse, Anthony Ramos a shop assistant at a GameStop outlet, and Myha’la Herrold and Talia Ryde, a student couple who dabble in the markets. We flip from one character to another, as the nervous tension grows.
Dumb Money is being compared with The Social Network (2010) – partly because the Winkelvoss twins who were the villains in that film are producers of this one, but it’s not a good match-up. What we have here is a crude fable of class revenge, as the poor get organised and take the spoils from the rich. It suggests that the self-appointed Masters of the Universe are surprisingly vulnerable when the little guys all stick together. It shows how quickly and effectively an on-line community can be formed via social media, and what a threat it poses to those big companies that engage in casual, predatory behaviour.
Well… this is what the filmmakers would like us to believe, but a little research shows that no great revolutions followed in the wake of this episode. The hedge fund guys are still thriving, still doing exactly what they did before, perhaps with a trifle more caution. Keith got out with a tidy sum and has apparently never traded since. Most of the small investors made a modest profit or loss. Gabe Plotkin, who lost billions, has bounced back as if nothing ever happened.
Ultimately, the events related in Dumb Money were a miraculous one-off, a fairy tale that came to life during the COVID-19 crisis, as people teamed up and worked off their frustrations in the virtual world. In the real world, David may have won one round, but Goliath remains firmly in control of the game. This entertaining movie may not inspire the masses to start trading on the stock market, but it will allow many a mug investor to enjoy a revenge fantasy on the potentates of Wall Street.
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Written by Lauren Schuker Blum, Rebecca Angelo, Ben Mezrich
Starring: Paul Dano, Pete Davidson, Shailene Woodley, Seth Rogan, America Ferrara, Vincent D’Onofrio, Sebastian Stan, Nick Offerman, Myha’la Herrold, Talia Ryder, Anthony Ramos
USA, MA 15+, 104 mins
Published in the Australian Financial Review, 28 October, 2023