Monday, May 27, 2024

‘Dumb Money’ Isn’t As Smart As It Thinks It Is

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Dumb Money is a film that trafficks in leftist ideas but, quite frankly, lacks the nerve to be anything close to political. To do so would require the movie to engage with politics and its characters with something more than surface level: “Remember when this happened during the pandemic.” If all that wasn’t enough, it is also barely a movie.

Craig Gillespie has made some good films, and one that comes so close to greatness you can almost taste it, I Tonya. But Dumb Money is uninspired and formless in a way that leaves us muttering the great last line of Burn After Reading, “What did we learn here anything?” The answer is no.

dumb money
Caroline (Sahline Woodley) and Keith Gill (Paul Dano).

It doesn’t help that the script by Lauren Schulker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, based on Ben Mezrich’s book “The Antisocial Network,” doesn’t seem to understand how to create a story out of what was essentially a series of articles. Fun fact: the rights to Mezrich’s books were bought before he had even started writing the book. Perhaps the whole enterprise was doomed from the get-go, demonstrating a desire to cash in rather than tell a story.

While it’s tempting to call Dumb Money propaganda, it would be untrue. Propaganda excites, incites, informs, misinforms, and ultimately, and this is important, has a point of view. What passes for a point of view in Dumb Money is a lazy and half-hearted attempt to capture a zeitgeist without attempting to understand or investigate the moment in time.

I talk a lot about how movies are magic, illusions, and images, not based on fact. To some degree, there’s an argument to be made that movies have no actual obligation to be “true”; after all, art has no real obligation to be morally instructional or historically accurate. But even so, it still has to risk saying something or at least be entertaining.

Instead, Gillespie, Blum, and Angelo have conspired to make pablum. Keith Gill (Paul Dano), who goes by the Reddit user Roaring Kitty, is a good guy with a loving wife, Caroline (Shaline Woodley). He merely posts videos on the subreddit /WallStreetBets and, despite the subreddit’s infamous reputation for misogyny, racism, homophobic slurs, etc., isn’t like that. Blum and Angelo could have shown the cognitive dissonance between how people behave online and in real life. Instead, they have characters point out the rampant bigotry on the site and have another dismiss it with a “Why is that the first comment you go to?”

Then there’s the front-line nurse Jennifer Campbell (America Ferrera), who stands with Roaring Kitty and the others. In real life, she’s a Maga-head, a fact left out of Dumb Money. The reason is to make her more palpable and make the fairy tale of class warfare Gillespie wants to tell all the more potent. But it has the opposite effect; it makes her character as bland as the other flaw-free working-class. Ignoring Campbell’s problematic political beliefs highlights Gillespie’s cowardice.

By sanding off the rough edges of people like Sanders, Dumb Money sidesteps the more fascinating and complex idea of what modern class warfare might look like, with a working-class of disparate political beliefs against the billionaire class. The friction between the GameStop employee Marcus (Gabe Ramos) and his manager Brad (Dane DeHaan) is relatable to anyone who has ever worked a low-paying service job but also misses that Brad is getting hosed just as much as Marcus. Though admittedly, Brad is a dick. 

However, I must admit to cackling upon discovering that Riri (Myha’la Herrold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder), an inter-racial wlw couple, were based on one straight white dude. As the kids say, LOL, more of that Hollywood, more of that.

dumb money
Jennifer Campbell (America Ferrera) deals with social awkwardness.

It’s telling that despite the caricature of evilness, the billionaires are rightly portrayed as Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio) and Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) are the only ones somewhat appalled by how the Redditors seem to be casually using the “r” word. I say rightly because we’ve learned over the last few years that the cartoonish villains portrayed in the average Captain Planet episode are a three-dimensional portrayal compared to how these heinous people are in reality. 

Despite everything else, the best parts of Dumb Money are the rich a-holes. D’Onofrio’s shambling gait as he feeds his pet pig while casually talking to Plotkin about how to manipulate the market makes for the most entertainment because, unlike the other characters, Gillespie isn’t trying his damnest to make us like them. The best laughs come with how woefully out of touch they are compared to the rest of the world. They don’t wear masks, even as their maids and other assistants do, and move around with comfort and freedom unafforded the working class.

Or when they are about to testify in front of Congress, their PR team gently asks them if maybe zooming in front of their wine collection is a good idea. “But it’s not that big?” I almost would have preferred less of an inane working-class hero story and more of the satirical buffoonery of how the one percent comport themselves all the while the world burns down around them and somehow remain unscathed.

Even the introductions, as clever as they may be, make the billionaires more interesting. We’re introduced to Gabe Plotkin, the movie’s main villain, while he’s in an empty mansion, awaiting what we assume to be the movers. Except it’s revealed that he’s waiting on the demolition team, who are late. He lives next door and wants to tear down the house to put up a tennis court. Contrast this with how we are introduced to Dano’s Keith Gill by meeting his friend for lunch to discuss how he’s buying up Game Stop shares.

Never mind that Dano is a consummate actor and tells us so much about Keith just by how he sits at the table. But Blum and Angelo cast him as a Jimmy Stewart arch-type, the soft-spoken little guy against the callous Goliaths, but fail to find a way to make it feel like the battle of titans they want it so badly to be.

Dumb Money wants to portray the GameStop stock shorting as a sea change in how Wall Street conducts business. Gillespie even quotes the Redditors as equating their holding from selling the stocks with the French Revolution. It is a comparison that fails when it becomes evident that neither the Redditors nor the filmmakers seem to understand what the French Revolution was about. It wasn’t about buying stocks.

Insult to injury, Gillespie is cribbing from David Fincer’s Social Network but doing so in the most shallow way possible. Nikolas Karakatsanis’s camera frames Dumb Money with muted colors and static framing. Karakatsanis shows flashes of creativity with montages of memes, viral TikToks, and other social media posts. But they feel so flat and lifeless. Watching these hollow, shapeless montages, I couldn’t help but think of Sammi Cohen’s You Are So Not Invited to My Bat Mitzvah and how she and Ben Hardwicke effortlessly blended Snapchat, Instagram, and social media into the cinematic narrative and made it feel organic and alive.

The difference between Gillespie and Fincher is that we can feel Finch’s contempt for his main character. But Gillespie doesn’t seem all that interested in Keith Gill outside of the fact that he’s the main character. What drives and moves him is a mystery, not because Gillespie and Dano portray him as some enigma but because, like every other character, all the edges have been sanded off to make it easy to root for him.

dumb money
Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) tells his wife the bad news.

I’m not a fan of Pete Davidson. He plays Kevin, Keith’s brother. The two have zero sibling chemistry. But Davidson at least refuses to let Kevin be lovable. A foul-mouthed Uber Eats driver who drinks his client’s drink but cries when he and Keith visit their sister’s grave. (Her death has little to no impact other than showing that Keith lost her during the pandemic; how she died is never alluded to.) Her death profoundly affects him. Kevin contains multitudes that allow him to be a real character, even if his rallying speech to Kevin feels forced because it seems Kevin has any interest other than screwing anyone over, rich or poor.

Admittedly, it’s hard for me to get riled up about a bunch of people who lived through the 2008 financial crisis, invested in Wall Street anyway, and then were shocked that the system was rigged. But even so, Gillespie, Blum, and Angelo’s job is to make me care. Either way, it’s more than a little galling to see a movie go through the rigamarole of showing me how Wall Street rigged the system again, got caught again, and walked away without any consequence again, and then tell me via epilogue text that the GameStop stock movement was the beginning of the revolution.

Especially when they must carefully couch their words for the “inspiration” to work, Gabe Plotnik’s Hedgefund, Melvin Captial, did, in fact, close. However, his other hedge fund, Tallwoods Capital, did not, and while he is no longer a billionaire, he is a co-owner of the Charlotte Hornets and has a net worth of four hundred million dollars. We got him on the run now, boys!

Gillespie and company also conveniently left out that despite the narrative, it was not quite the haves vs. the have-nots as portrayed. Michael Burry, the Christian Bale character from Adam McKay’s The Big Short, bought GameStop stock. Again, this would have made Dumb Money more interesting by forcing it to have some nuance.

Dumb Money hints at the difference between being rich on paper and actually having the money, i.e., being liquid, but never really examines that. It’s disappointing, considering if more people knew how little money the billionaire class actually had, that alone would bring forth the French-style revolution Dumb Money so often cites but has so little understanding of.

But the real stinger is that Dumb Money has Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss as executive producers. Now that’s comedy.

Images courtesy of Sony Pictures Releasing

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