Monday 25 September 2023

Zeros and ones: "Dumb Money"

When they're not busy reading comic books and their own stock returns, the nerds presently invested with the power to bankroll movies have their heads buried in the financial pages. Only this could explain the current Forbesization of the American cinema, which has already resulted in a run of films on subjects as pressing as the development of a Nike trainer (Air) and the evolution of the humble Cheeto (Flamin' Hot). Our moneyed overlords now treat us to Dumb Money, a rapid-response retelling of the 2021 GameStop kerfuffle, in which a ragbag of nickel-and-dime financial dayplayers, contrarian TikTokkers and snarky Reddit users, rallied by "recreational YouTuber" Keith Gill (embodied here by Paul Dano), handed the hedge-fund suits and assorted NASDAQ experts their collective ass, simply by making the market work in their favour for a matter of months. The recreation of this landmark moment in North American history* (*online) has been assigned to Craig Gillespie, the director who made his own fortune with mildly zesty ensemble comedies (I, Tonya; Cruella) that felt like Diet Coke versions of whatever Michael Lehmann and Mark Waters were getting away with in the Nineties and Noughties. The new film, alas, finds Gillespie approaching his material as if it were the basis of a profound, wide-reaching Moneyball or Social Network-like parable. Much of the action (such as it is) plays out on screens of one kind or another, the visual palette remains resolutely muted throughout, and - after an early misapplication of Cardi B's "WAP" - the soundtrack is given over to a derivatively ambient score that suggests the hum of a thousand overburdened computer processors making a brisk trade in binary code. The prevailing editorial assumption is that the ups and downs of the stock market make for an inherently fascinating movie subject rather than just, say, astrology for dudes.

The script, adapted from Ben Mezrich's non-fiction account The Anti-Social Network by the Orange is the New Black duo of Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo, has one solid organising idea: introducing all its characters with an onscreen estimation of their total net worth. This not only lays out a very American hierarchy, tapering down from traditional power brokers (Nick Offerman as a hedge-fund chief who works mostly from the golf course, Seth Rogen as his increasingly jittery underling) through thrusting tech bros (Dano's Gill; Sebastian Stan and Rushi Kota as the founders of trading app Robin Hood) to blue-collar workers using their two pennies to buck the system (America Ferrera, Anthony Ramos) and students mired in six-figure debts (Myha'la, Talia Ryder); it also allows money-conscious viewers to effectively tag themselves on this sliding scale. Elsewhere, though, the writing proves far spottier: Dumb Money shrugs listlessly between its investors, sporadically stumbling across facile parallels and ironies, while comprehensively failing to make the business of latter-day trading - i.e. people repeatedly tapping at their phone - involving or cinematic. You can feel desperation setting in behind the camera whenever this script gets the two students to feel one another up, at which point the slapdash, anything-for-a-laugh approach Adam McKay brought to 2015's The Big Short suddenly seems like a triumph of the creative imagination. Gillespie keeps pounding the buttons nevertheless, bringing up established facts, actual news bulletins, social media posts of the time, and - bleurgh - an Elon Musk cameo. Eventually, like a monkey typing Shakespeare, he even accesses one legitimately funny scene, forcing the wildly disparate energies of Dano and Pete Davidson into the same confined space as man-boy brothers squabbling in the back of their parents' car. It's not a dead loss, in other words, but at its best, Dumb Money is a TV movie that's strayed inside the multiplex, and at its worst, it unspools as a dystopian vision of a world where films are 90% meme and all human interaction is carried out through an app. This may well be the kind of infotainment the drones in charge would now prefer we show up for: a dull ode to a brief period when capital circulated in a marginally less predictable fashion, one that might as well have been churned out overnight by AI for all the personality it displays. But as the onscreen GameStop investors are so fond of saying: fuck 'em.

Dumb Money is now playing in cinemas nationwide.

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