Dumb Money tries so hard to be anarchic and subversive, a cinematic middle finger to the financially powerful. On paper, it sounds like a fine atmosphere to evoke for a movie chronicling that early 2021 phenomenon where a bunch of folks on Reddit turned GameStop stock into a hot commodity, throwing the American stock market into chaos in the process. So why does director Craig Gillespie's execution of this film feel so hollow and rigid? The real-world events he brings to the screen were so unpredictable, yet the images comprising Dumb Money are incredibly lacking in verve. It's impossible to properly channel an unruly aura when your filmmaking tendencies are so beholden to cinematic norms. Any of the liveliness Gillespie brought to I, Tonya or even the campy Cruella is absent here. This is a paint-by-numbers execution of a scenario that was anything but routine.
Written by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (whose script adapts the book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich), Dumb Money begins with Keith Gill (Paul Dano), a financial analyst who spends his downtime running a YouTube channel. Going by the name Roaring Kitty online, Gill is known for his oddball pieces of stock predictions and advice, like urging people to invest in GameStop stock. This advice comes in July 2020, when the COVID pandemic is keeping everyone indoors and GameStop seems poised to shut its doors for good. Yet everyday folks like Jennifer Campbell (America Ferrera) and Marcus (Anthony Ramos) listen to Gill and act accordingly. By the start of 2021, these folks and other working-class investors have managed to "hold" their GameStop shares to send the company skyrocketing. This doesn't make hedge fund managers like Kenneth C. Griffin (Nick Offerman) and Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) happy. The status quo is getting shaken up...and Gill is in the center of all that mayhem.
If there's anything Dumb Money should solidify, it's that focusing on rich characters for a prolonged period of time won't suddenly make them as interesting as the Roy family members on Succession. Too much screentime in Blum and Angelo's script is dedicated to the everyday life of Plotkin and his phone calls with other wealthy people like Steve Cohen (Vincent D'Onofrio). Save for one amusing sight gag of Cohen letting a massive pig run around his mansion, there's just not much entertainment, let alone actual insight, to be gleaned by spending time with these uber-wealthy people. It's not shocking to learn that someone like Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan), the founder of the stock market app Robinhood, is weasely. The excesses of these well-off people are rarely depicted interestingly, as epitomized by a groan-inducing scene of Tenev and his business partner sauntering to their Tesla automobiles as Kendrick Lamar's "HUMBLE." blares on the soundtrack. If Dumb Money insists on spending so much time with hedge fund managers and other modern monsters, at least make their time on-screen absorbing in some fashion. Worse, good actors like Rogen and Offerman are never given enough substantive material in the script to turn these figures into interesting human beings.
Dumb Money's inclination to be as "comprehensive" as possible means it also wants to examine the powerful people upended by the GameStop stock snafu. In the process, the movie just wastes screentime that could be spent further developing the primary working-class characters. In a movie that begins to roll its credits before it reaches, the 100-minute mark, few of these scrappy figures emerge as fully-formed distinct personalities. Worse, neither the script nor the filmmaking is very good at alternating between wacky profane humor and more grounded emotional beats. This is especially apparent when it becomes clear that the audience is supposed to be invested in the strained dynamic between Gill and his younger brother Kevin (Pete Davidson). The duo's rapport is so surface-level that it's hard to care about their relationship. Plus, their dynamic is so removed from the GameStop stock stuff that it feels like Dumb Money has to grind itself to a halt to deal with these fractured siblings.
While this kind of writing lets down the performers of Dumb Money, these actors are also hindered by the film's rampantly realistic filmmaking style. This is a movie about Redditors who use ape memes to convey contempt for authority and revel in misspelling words. Bizarrely, Dumb Money opts to frame these souls in lighting and color grading that evokes a much lesser version of the grim aesthetic of Steve McQueen's Shame of all movies. This approach makes it utterly baffling whenever characters like Jennifer spout phrases like "diamond hands" in the real world. The internet-savvy dialogue and filmmaking style of Dumb Money are at war with one another and not in a way that benefits the movie as a whole. Embracing a filmmaking style rooted in grounded reality works when framing the world of a sex addict in Shame. It's less successful when you're telling a story about dudes in cat masks being oversized YouTube personalities.
All that flat realism in the visual style established by Gillespie and cinematographer Nikolas Karakatsanis alone ensures that Dumb Money is a rudimentary cinematic exercise. The bog-standard screenwriting only compounds this problem as does a score by Will Bates. This composer is clearly channeling beloved films for The Social Network and Steve Jobs. Those features had scores that beautifully mixed traditional orchestral compositions with electronic flourishes to create the perfect auditory companion to stories about technology. Bates aims for the same thing here, but his compositions just come off as half-hearted retreads of what Network and Jobs did so well. Worse, the score often intrudes on, rather than enhancing, key emotional moments between the characters. It's already so hard to get invested in what's happening in Dumb Money without a Will Bates composition beating you over the head with how you're supposed to feel.
It's a good thing deeply talented actors like Paul Dano and America Ferrera are around in Dumb Money since they keep the proceedings from being totally disposable. Ferrera especially does great work communicating working-class anguish that makes it believable why Jennifer would put all her chips on the stock advice of an oddball YouTuber. Surely, though, fans of these actors can find better Dano, Ferrera, or Ramos movies to watch. Dumb Money isn't necessarily awful, it's just incredibly hollow. It's a routine recreation of modern history that fails to say anything meaningful or challenging about its subject matter. Worst of all, it doesn't even communicate a sense of simmering infectious rage against the financial status quo that could've easily salvaged a familiar script or unimaginative filmmaking. Instead, it's just a total flat-line too afraid to ever critique the larger systemic problems (like, say, capitalism) at play in its story. In other words, Dumb Money shows little of the often baffling but memorable gusto of the people it's chronicling.