By: Adam Freed
The whispered promise of the American dream has inspired countless voyages across the sea in pursuit of opportunity. It was author Mario Puzo who created, and Francis Ford Coppola who gave life to Bonasera, the Italian immigrant and mortician, who iconically opens the 1972 masterpiece The Godfather with the lines, “I believe in America. America has made my fortune.” The lust for American wealth has never been stronger than it was in the 1980’s when Michael Douglas’ Gordan Gecko coined the phrase “Greed…is good.” It is on Gecko’s former playground, Wall Street, potentially the strongest symbol of America’s allure of upward financial mobility that director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) places his crosshairs in his soon to be released financial drama Dumb Money. The title of the film comes from the label that financial insiders have long used in reference to purchase orders placed by industry outsiders. Dumb Money is here to remind audiences of the somewhat belabored point that from the very beginning, it was always us versus them.
Gillespie’s star powered film feels incredibly recent given that its true to life plot is set only a few years ago towards the midpoint of the Covid-19 global pandemic. Fortunately the pandemic acts as little more than a backdrop to the fascinating story of Keith Gill, who prompted what must be considered the most globally significant coup-d'etat in modern investment history. Gill, played lovably by Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood), is armed with only a base knowledge of investment strategy and his Reddit video account, persuades millions of investors to purchase GameStop stock in droves, forcing the video game retailer’s stock value to jump from $3 to $347 in a matter of months. This day trader rags to riches story would lack punch if it weren’t for the powerful hedge funds at risk of losing billions, who play foil to the investing public if Gill’s plan to democratize the investment structure were to pay off.
What gives Dumb Money legs is that the evil empire attempting to squash Gill’s financial “power to the people '' moment is represented by a triumvirate of undeniably talented actors, playing demonstratively loathsome characters. First the sublime Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket), whose smarmy and condescending hedge fund guru and New York Mets owner Steve Cohen strips away almost all of the likability that existed in the fictional Gordon Gecko three decades prior. Following D’Onofrio’s lead are comedians Nick Offerman as overconfident Citadel CEO Kenneth Griffin and Gabe Plotkin of Melvin Capital captured in glorious lampoon by Seth Rogen. Rogen’s decision to attempt to earn empathy from the audience as his financial castle falls under siege from blue collar buyers, provides a welcome layer of depth to what otherwise would have been a script overflowing with one dimensional Wall Street warlocks.
What works against the “us versus them” plot arc of Dumb Money is that anyone with wifi is likely familiar with the story and remembers it vividly as only 18 months have passed since its final resolution. In addition, the film works very hard to paint members of the American financial institution as megalomaniacs who very well may be, but in so doing, the film creates a bevy of static antagonistic characters whose lack of depth renders their deeds more humorous than harmful. The rapidity with which this film was pushed into circulation is a bold choice, perhaps hoping to capitalize on the reality that many who purchase tickets to see Dumb Money may be doing so with a few easy earned dollars spawned from their own minor investment in GameStop. For audiences in search of more roundly told tales of modern Wall Street malfeasance, look no further than Adam McKay’s The Big Short (2015) or J.C. Chandor’s blistering Margin Call (2011). These films, as well as Dumb Money, indicate that the American dream may be alive and well, but this is certainly not the case in the investment arena, where rules seem to only apply to those who own the least number of shares. This sad reality shouldn’t completely invalidate Bonasera’s belief in America, only highlight that he was a mortician and not a day trader.
Target Score: 5/10 Dumb Money provides plenty of insight into an interesting modern story of financial manipulation in addition to a few laughs. However the film never overcomes that most audiences already know where the film is going even prior to settling into their seats.