The finance industry as a movie setting has a rich history. From Wall Street through Trading Places to the Big Short, well-worn tropes of frantic offices, decadent displays of wealth and a hedonistic party lifestyle shine through.
Dumb Money is a look at the other half, the small investor, through the lens of 2020’s cocooning, masking and home office reality, juxtaposed against the brief inversion of power and wealth that the Gamestop stock phenomenon became in January 2021.
Starring Paul Dano (The Batman, Fabelmans) as self-styled popular finance influencer Keith Gill and with an all star supporting cast including Pete Davidson, Seth Rogen, Nick Offerman, America Ferrera, and veteran Clancy Brown, the David vs Goliath narrative is solidly carried. While the story itself is threadbare (it is, after all, based on a stock rising), the humour and humanity of each of the characters is given centre-stage, making the film accessible and appealing even without any knowledge or interest in stocks or finance.
The weakest aspect is also where the film departs most from reality. The core narrative mirrors that found online like a mythology developed on reddit, tied up in conspiracy theories and the desperation motivated thinking of people deep in the red on a bad investment. In the real world Gill’s thesis was wrong, his arguments that Gamestop had a bright future and was undervalued have proven to be false. The company has declining sales, has failed to pivot to new markets (including a disasterous punt on NFTs last year), it has closed locations and pulled out of markets worldwide (the last Gamestop in Ireland closed in July).
Image from Limerick Live95 FM
So what’s the truth behind Gamestop’s dizzying rise in 2020-2021, if Wall Street didn’t get it wrong, why did they lose big shorting it? Restrictions associated with the covid pandemic ensured that more people would spend time online than ever before, scrolling and browsing social media to break the tedium.
Reddit’s WallStreetBets forum was especially active, during an era of high stock volatility their posters were celebrated based on who could post the biggest losses or gains on the “dumbest” plays. Dumb Money presents WSB’s meme-laden culture in superficial detail, but what it fails to express is that the early adopters had a strong motivation to encourage others to “HODL” (hold on for dear life), while later planning to sell themselves.
The absence of any character to represent the subreddit moderators deleting dissenting comments, or reddit’s administrators making winking references to “stonk” memes makes Dumb Money‘s narrative incomplete and dishonest. Gamestop stock promotion was allowed to reach the “popular” and “all” sections of reddit daily despite rules against this. Far from being an organic community effort to “stick it to wall street”, the Gamestop pump was facilitated and encouraged by online platforms and moderators who had bought in themselves, or who were profiting from the purchase of premium features and gifts on their site.
Purchasing stocks is not, and never will be a revolutionary act, and anyone who sincerely adhered to the cult-like consensus in these stockholder forums has lost significant money as the hype balloon has slowly deflated since.
$GME share price since the short squeeze of January 2021
Gill’s legacy is to be found in the dozens of attempts to re-create his hype train. Failed short squeeze attempts on other shorted stocks were made on Bed Bath & Beyond (bankrupt), AMC cinemas (likely bankrupt in the near future), as well as a myriad of ape-adjacent NFT and cypto-currency pump and dump schemes.
Dumb Money places heavy blame on Melvin, Robin Hood and Citadel as it’s villains, evil-doers engaged in market corruption and illegal behaviour. The film side-steps the truth by innuendo here, lending credence to the conspiratorial arguments of the deranged remainder who still believe that Gamestop will moon again some day. The WSB splinter subreddit “superstonk” is a hotbed of cult-like anger and denial, founded almost to the day when GME peaked in January 2021, reddit continues to allow this forum to recruit on the frontpage with reality-detached projections of Gamestop’s prospects, as the company itself continues to spiral towards failure.
Dumb Money could have done many of these people a favour by presenting an honest interpretation of the truth behind the GME rise, much like Dutch Tulip crazes in the 17th century or Beanie Babies in the 1990s, most individual small investors who bought in were burned, while large institutions on both sides of the fence largely profited (Melvin aside).
Instead, all that’s presented is a brief glimpse of a single mother HODLer still with her net worth in the red, and a dodgy affirmation in the epilogue that the “superstonk” conspiracy narrative regarding Ken Griffin and Robin Hood were true – they weren’t, and if you were stopped from buying GME at $400 because of the disabled buy button, Robin Hood did you a favour.
There is no self-examination or moral reflection on the consequences or aftermath here, to it’s detriment. Still, it’s a charming bit of fiction
*** 3/5 stars