“Dumb Money” Is Clear About Money but Vague About Politics

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Complex abstractions are hard to convey in movies, but “Dumb Money,” Craig Gillespie’s new drama based on the true story of the buying frenzy for GameStop stock and the havoc it created in the finance world, does an unusually good job of it. Gillespie peppers the dialogue with a handful of key terms—“selling short,” “short squeeze,” “margin account”—which the movie both depicts in action and invites viewers to research for themselves. He also neatly organizes the story into three distinct zones, which parse the abstractions all the more clearly: the small-time purchasers of shares in the video-game retailer GameStop, the Wall Street big shots whose wisdom the small-timers defy and whose businesses they threaten, and the lone individual who sparked the showdown: Keith Gill (Paul Dano). Gill was a social-media influencer who, under the pseudonym Roaring Kitty, advocated for the stock on his YouTube videocast. (He delivered the same message on Reddit under the pseudonym DeepFuckingValue.) At the time, he was working in an unglamorous backwater of financial services, as a broker at MassMutual, and he had an axe to grind with Wall Street. As the film’s protagonist, Keith is the source of both its main strengths and its weaknesses: his exploits and passions give “Dumb Money” an appealing energy, even as his temperament and mind-set go largely unexamined.

The reason that the buying frenzy Keith had engendered caused trouble was that a number of institutional investors were selling GameStop short. Short selling is a way of betting that a stock price will fall: instead of buying shares in anticipation of eventually selling at a higher price, a short seller borrows stock and immediately sells it, contracting to buy it back at a later date; so long as the stock falls, this yields a profit. In “Dumb Money,” the short sellers are represented by perhaps the biggest and most brazen of them, Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen), the founder of a New York-based hedge fund called Melvin Capital. When the story starts, GameStop is trading at $3.85 per share; Gabe believes that it will go even lower, but then Keith begins his pushback to drive the price back up.

Gillespie contrasts Gabe’s charmed life—during the pandemic, he decamped to Florida and bought two houses next door to each other, planning to demolish one and build a tennis court on the plot—with Keith’s more modest circumstances. The son of a nurse (Kate Burton) and a truck driver (Clancy Brown), Keith grew up in Brockton, Massachusetts, and was the first in his family to graduate from college, a local one. He lives in an unremarkable house with his wife, Caroline (Shailene Woodley), and their infant daughter. After the markets close each day, he retreats to the family basement to produce his Roaring Kitty videos. In them, he displays his balance sheet and discusses, with a snarky and colloquial fervor, his assessment of GameStop and why he thinks that the big firms—despite the mighty resources that he knows they have at their disposal—are getting it wrong. (His main reason: the kind of people who work on Wall Street don’t get gaming and gamers.) Keith is as much an entertainer as he is an expert, but he puts his money where his mouth is: he invests heavily in GameStop, and, once his followers buy in, too, the share price skyrockets.

For a short seller like Gabe, this is a big problem. The worst that can happen with an ordinary stock purchase is that the price goes to zero and the investor loses her entire stake. But, as a TV-news commentator explains during the film, there’s no limit to how high a stock can go, which means that a short seller’s losses are potentially infinite. To avert disaster, short sellers who have made a bad bet may rush to buy back the borrowed stock when it rises. But this creates a further problem: these forced purchases increase demand, thus driving the price even higher and putting all remaining short sellers in an even deeper hole. This is what’s known as a short squeeze, and Gabe’s company is caught in a terrible one. At one point, he’s losing a billion dollars a day and has to run hat in hand to even bigger shots—notably, a pair of hedge-fund C.E.O.s, Steve Cohen (Vincent D’Onofrio), the current owner of the Mets, and Ken Griffin (Nick Offerman). Keith is eating this up, of course.

Meanwhile, who are the regular investors buying GameStop? The movie, written by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo (based on a nonfiction book by Ben Mezrich), presents a few: a nurse named Jenny (America Ferrera), a GameStop sales clerk named Marcus (Anthony Ramos), and two University of Texas undergraduates, Riri (Myha’la Herrold) and Harmony (Talia Ryder). The students are deep in debt, the nurse and the clerk are struggling to make ends meet, and when they, like many others, follow Keith into investing in GameStop they suddenly make lots of money, hundreds of thousands of dollars—at least on paper. That is to say, they can realize this profit only by selling their shares. And yet they don’t sell. This is by far the most interesting and mysterious aspect of the whole story, but it’s a mystery that neither Gillespie nor his screenwriters come close to illuminating.

Keith isn’t selling his stock, either: being able to put the squeeze on Gabe and other Wall Street potentates is seemingly worth far more to him than a big payday. He encourages his followers, over whom he has an almost guru-like power, to see their collective buying frenzy as a sort of protest movement. The “smart money” of Wall Street regards small retail investors with derision—that’s where the movie’s title comes from—but now finds itself at their mercy. (Keith’s followers gleefully burlesque their presumed unsophistication, brandishing misspelled signs reading “HODL THE LINE”—i.e., don’t sell.) By holding, they keep the price up, and even hope that others will join in and send it higher. (One of the students likens the run-up in the stock’s price to a Ponzi scheme.) The four depicted investors risk not cashing out in time, and seeing their paper gains vanish when the stock plummets, all because of the “hodl” that Keith has over them. Yet the nature of this cultlike fervor remains utterly unexplored. The fact that Keith does eventually cash out, realizing a profit—unlike some of his followers, who waited too long—is relegated to a concluding title card.

The movie wastes time on setting up a few minor points of the followers’ personalities (the nurse wants a man in her life, the students are in a romantic relationship, the clerk is tired of his fussy boss) rather than probing the psychology of a mass movement with strong political overtones. What political points the movie does make are predictable and safe. The oblivious privilege of Wall Street is emphasized throughout, as in the way that Gabe, preparing to give testimony to Congress via Zoom, fails to grasp why appearing in front of his wine collection is a bad look. There’s a passing mention, too, of the loosely linked collective’s affinities with Occupy Wall Street, but it comes and goes in the blink of its utterance. (There’s not even a hint that the anti-élite impulse could serve a Trumpist agenda just as readily as a leftist one.) The screenwriters are notably choosy about which acolytes they choose to dramatize; the presence of antisemitic comments on the group’s subreddit briefly becomes a significant plot point, but the antisemites themselves are neither seen nor heard, and the topic is quickly dropped.

Above all, Keith is presented merely as a bundle of idiosyncrasies and remains a cipher. He’s an obsessive runner who, when the going gets tough, heads to the track. He’s contemptuous of institutions but dismayed, even shocked, when his employers threaten to fire him for his extracurricular financial-world activities. He displays an overt frugality in his personal habits but has a lavishly equipped basement studio. Dano’s performance, abounding in nervous energy and revelling in puckish mannerisms, suggests a depth that’s absent from anything in the script. How Keith got started, how he built a following, what drives him to center his identity on his videos and posts are all left blank. His laconic self-justification (“I like the stock”) is tantalizingly inscrutable: behind it surely lurks a perspective that amounts almost to an aesthetics of investing, but the movie is unwilling or unable to delve further.

Still, the mechanisms that “Dumb Money” ably exposes retain a cold, clinical fascination. If it doesn’t come close to the achievement of “The Wolf of Wall Street”—whose intoxicating depiction of the will to power included profiteers getting their marks to share in the thrill—it nonetheless has an urgency that “The Big Short,” mired in the pride of its outrage and the vanity of its antics, never achieves. “Dumb Money,” touching on questions of the authority of personality and the importance of nonfinancial—even completely irrational—motives in the investment world, offers a gleeful romp through strange and treacherous territory that merits a closer, more careful look. ♦

Sourse: newyorker.com

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