“Dumb Money,” an energetic, ingratiating dramatization of the GameStop stock craze of 2021, presents an interesting challenge for its screenwriters, who have to juggle two forms of jargon in fast-paced dialogue.
That January, amateur traders, encouraged by online posts and videos, wildly drove up the stock price of the video game retailer GameStop, a company that seasoned investors had written off. Hedge funds that were shorting the stock — in essence, betting that it would fall — wound up facing huge losses, thanks to an army of ostensible novices.
So what’s more difficult to keep comprehensible for an audience: the obfuscatory verbiage of people who speak Wall Street and treat finance as a kind of secret, clubby code, or the mystifying memes of the Reddit and YouTube users, who are shown likening profits to chicken tenders and using the misspelling “HODL” to indicate that they don’t want to sell?
“Dumb Money,” to its credit, keeps nearly everything clear. Based on “The Antisocial Network,” a book that the author Ben Mezrich (“Bringing Down the House”) turned around in less than eight months, the movie contains more than a hint of David Fincher’s “The Social Network,” both in its lighting schemes and its efforts to wring suspense from shots of people looking at devices. (The two films share an editor, Kirk Baxter. Also, somewhat oddly, “Dumb Money” counts among its executive producers the real-life twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss, “Social Network” characters and the founders of a cryptocurrency exchange. Teddy Schwarzman, son of the Blackstone chief executive Stephen A. Schwarzman, provided financing for the movie.)
The actual director is Craig Gillespie, who treats the material with the same irreverence he brought to “I, Tonya” (2017), his dementedly funny take on the Tonya Harding scandal. The strain shows more than in that film, partly because “Dumb Money” is fundamentally earnest. The movie tells a story in which an assortment of have-not strangers — led by a former financial educator whose YouTube costume, one character notes, owes something to Luke Wilson’s headwear in “The Royal Tenenbaums” — band together to hold a stock even when cashing out would be unimaginably lucrative for them individually.
Their online forums may be filled with juvenile humor, and their users may not be snappily dressed, but these are people trying to feed their families and pay their debts. There’s nothing jaunty about that, try as the movie might to keep things lively with a Cardi B needle drop, TikTok-filled imagery and congressional grillings cleverly edited to make it look as if the actors were interacting with real-life lawmakers. (Some news clips feature the New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin.) Onscreen, the title is cheekily accompanied by an asterisk, to note that the phrase “dumb money” is used by Wall Street to deride dabbling investors.
The sardonic approach — which already has critics name-checking “The Big Short” — isn’t as fresh as it would have been even a few years ago. The former Wall Street Journal reporters Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s script surveys a range of people who jumped on the GameStop bandwagon. All of the principal characters, many of them inventions meant to stand in for real-life counterparts, are introduced with text indicating their estimated net worth.
The GameStop cult’s accidental leader is Keith Gill (Paul Dano), who has multiple noms de web and a thing for cat memes. After Gill explains online why he thinks GameStop is undervalued, his bullishness inspires others. His adherents, who never meet, include Jenny (America Ferrera), a nurse and single mother in Pittsburgh; Harmony (Talia Ryder) and Riri (Myha’la Herrold), undergraduates in Austin, Texas; and Marcos (Anthony Ramos), who works at a GameStop in Detroit and has to endure the sneering demands of his boss (Dane DeHaan).
“Dumb Money” isn’t fully content to wonk out. It can’t just be an investment movie; it also has to be a domestic drama. That makes sense to the extent that the story concerns people’s livelihoods (Shailene Woodley plays Gill’s wife, who supports his YouTubing and sweats through the agonizing decisions about whether to walk with millions). The humanizing efforts are less inspired when “Dumb Money” falls back on sibling-rivalry tropes. Pete Davidson gets a few laughs as Gill’s brother, who confuses Warren Buffett with Jimmy Buffett and takes a lax ethic toward his DoorDash gig.
Better, by virtue of being cast against type, are Seth Rogen, mostly in a straight-man role, as the hedge fund chief Gabe Plotkin, whose finances plummet as the GameStoppers’ portfolios explode, and Dano, who never condescends to a character he might easily have played as a joke. It’s hard not to root for Gill, in his dorky headband, to take down people who have staked vast sums against the stock he loves. Who cares if what the movie itself is selling is played out?
Rated R. Risky investments. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. In theaters.