1 of 5 | Paul Dano stars in "Dumb Money." Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures
LOS ANGELES, Sept. 8 (UPI) -- Dumb Money, which premiered Friday at the Toronto International Film Festival, is an engaging drama about how corrupt our financial institutions are. It doesn't rise to the heights of The Big Short but it simplifies some complex phenomena and has enough worthwhile things to say.
Keith Gill (Paul Dano) was an analyst at MassMutual in 2020. In his spare time, Keith hosted a YouTube show, during which he noticed GameStop stock was valued under $4 per share.
Keith told his followers he believed in the video game retailer and was investing in it. Enough viewers followed suit and the stock value began to rise.
Dumb Money balances several characters involved in different aspects of GameStop stock. Gabe Plotnik (Seth Rogen) was CEO of the Melvin Capital hedge fund.
Melvin and other hedge fund managers had been shorting GameStop since at least 2014 and would profit on covering those shorts at their lows. With GameStop stock rising, hedge funds with short options lost money, until the stock went so high the hedge funds would be in debt.
Jenny Campbell (America Ferrera) is an ER nurse who invests hoping for a windfall to lift her out of poverty. Marcos Garcia (Anthony Ramos) works at a Detroit GameStop and decides to invest.
University of Texas at Austin students Harmony Williams (Talia Ryder) and Riri Pariseau (Myha'la Herrold) lay out the moral dilemma best. When Riri explains the more people buy GameSport the more valuable everyone's share is, Harmony replies, "That's the definition of a pyramid scheme."
Harmony is correct. If the value depends on how many other people you sell it to, that is a pyramid scheme. The other issue is if you can never sell it no matter how high it gets, what value does it really have? The movie gets to that.
Both Harmony and Riri join the investors following Keith. Each new character explains a new aspect of stock trading, and once they're all involved, can keep introducing new concepts.
The way the GameStop investors see it, shorting is taking advantage of a company's failure. They resent that hedge funds would profit if GameStop goes under, so they don't stop investing even when they could cash out for six figures or more.
Another important aspect of the GameStop saga is that it coincides with the emergence of online stock trading platforms that allow individuals to buy and sell without paying fees to brokers. Most of these GameStop investors couldn't afford a stock broker.
Robinhood CEOs Vlad Tenev (Sebastian Stan) and Baiju Bhatt (Rushi Kota) are represented in Dumb Money. When a reporter asks them how they can afford to run a site that's charging no feeds, the answer suggests potential conflicts of interest.
At one point, the investors succeeded in driving up GameStop stock to hundreds of dollars in value. So, why didn't they sell then?
None of the characters in the film say they wanted to hold out for more money. Instead, they all agree that it's the moral imperative to not let Wall Street cannibalize GameStop.
So they all individually decide not to sell. Plus, as long as Keith held his stock, they believed in him.
It does suggest that the whole system is designed to keep investors from claiming their profits. If their investment has grown to millions of dollars, they're supposed to not take that money, not even to invest it in something else.
It's also worth considering Keith et. al. were pursuing a pyrrhic victory. They couldn't pull the GameStop scheme with every company so hedge funds could always short another struggling business. It might have been enough to show that individual investors could make a profit and just get out on top.
It also begs the question of why didn't Gabe cash in his GameStop shorts when they were at $4 per share? Did he really need to wring the last $4 out of it? Granted, he may have had shorts on millions of shares where every dollar counted.
The film contrasts scenes of Keith and the investors' elation at their gains with Gabe depressed over his losses. That's not really even though. The hedge funds lost a bet. This was always a possible outcome.
To hobble the investors, a Reddit board where many were sharing information was reported and shut down, though other vulgarity and abuse remained unchecked on Reddit. Robinhood suspended the option to buy more GameStop stock, though nobody in the film sells at that stage.
Interestingly, what's noticeably absent from any of this is the actual financial plan of the GameStop company. Marcos' boss (Dane DeHaan) mentions the corporate handbook but nothing about how GameStop profits as a video game retailer. Perhaps it shouldn't be possible to make millions of dollars irrespective of the actual company at stake.
It is nice to see a movie that has to represent the pandemic because it's a true story that took place in 2020-2021. People wear masks, though lower them liberally, and they are cloth or surgical masks even in Jenny's hospital, but most people didn't know about N95s yet.
Keith lost a sister in 2020 too though it's not specified whether or not she died of COVID. Anti-police graffiti can also be seen on the streets because this was the era of the George Floyd protests.
The film's portrayal of YouTube/TikTok/Reddit culture is abrasive, but it's probably rendered far less obnoxious than the real deal just for the sake of making it cinematically palatable. Extrapolating that, Keith's brother (Pete Davidson) screams and interrupts in every scene trying to add vulgar humor.
For the casual viewer wondering what the GameStop story, or investing in general, is all about, Dumb Money balances informative scenes and dramatic ones. For the die-hard stock enthusiasts, Dumb Money asks some relevant questions worth discussing further.
Dumb Money opens in theaters Sept. 29.
Fred Topel, who attended film school at Ithaca College, is a UPI entertainment writer based in Los Angeles. He has been a professional film critic since 1999, a Rotten Tomatoes critic since 2001, and a member of the Television Critics Association since 2012 and the Critics Choice Association since 2023. Read more of his work in Entertainment.