Vanity Fair – Dumb Money First Look: The GameStop Stock Frenzy Is Now a Movie
From a 2023 perspective, the financial war depicted in Dumb Money may seem like a dimly remembered headline from a bygone time. The so-called GameStop short squeeze happened in January 2021, when the world was reeling from a multitude of far bigger problems: COVID lockdowns, vaccine shortages, the Capitol insurrection. In the shadow of such colossal events, a disparate group of small-time investors began driving up the stock price of a brick-and-mortar video game store that had previously been destined for oblivion.
The fluctuations of a single stock would hardly have garnered much attention—except that this vast group of small-scale investors, unifying mainly in Reddit groups and the comment threads of YouTube videos, managed to line their pockets (at least temporarily) while upending the balance sheets of a small cadre of ultrawealthy, politically connected millionaires and billionaires.
The GameStop buyers literally used a stock-buying app called Robinhood, which allowed them to take from the rich—like investment management firm Melvin Capital, which had placed large bets that the company would continue to collapse—and give to the poor (namely, themselves). Now their story is being told in the movie Dumb Money, featuring an all-star cast that includes Paul Dano, Seth Rogen, America Ferrera, Pete Davidson, Shailene Woodley, Nick Offerman, Anthony Ramos, and Sebastian Stan. The backstory of how it unfolded is like a cross between Caddyshack and Wall Street, with the nobodies outmaneuvering the somebodies—at least until the rules abruptly change.
Rogen, who plays one of the multi-millionaire hedge fund managers whose business goes topsy-turvy because of the GameStop rally, says Dumb Money illustrates how much of the financial system is rigged to benefit those who already dominate it. “It is purposely convoluted—you know what I mean?—in a way that is designed to keep people out of it,” he says. “The price of entry is understanding this completely bizarre system. It’s so hard! Could you explain to me, conceptually, what shorting of stock is and why that is a thing that exists? I still have a hard time wrapping my head around it. And I think that’s the point.”
Director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya and Cruella) saw the GameStop stock frenzy play out in his own household, telling Vanity Fair that a close member of his family was one of the millions of small-scale buyers who took part. “My son, who’s 24, was very involved in the whole run, and happened to be living at our house at the time,” the filmmaker says. “So through him, I got to experience the emotional roller coaster and the pain and the frustration and the outrage.”
The movie, set to debut on September 22, is based on the nonfiction book The Antisocial Network by Ben Mezrich. The screenplay is by Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum, both Orange Is the New Black writers who previously worked as journalists. Gillespie added his son’s eyewitness experiences to the mix, although most of the smaller buyers are fictionalized amalgams. “We tried to cover the gamut of the various scenarios that happened,” Gillespie says. “There were the early traders that got in and made money. There were the traders that came in too late. They were the ones that didn’t sell, which sadly was quite a lot of people. So we tried to represent the various groups.”
The title refers to the derisive term Wall Street titans use for the smaller “retail” investors, who are frequently gambling with tinier amounts of money and an incomplete view of market forces. But this time, “Dumb Money” came back to bite these mega-investors when internet-driven hordes rallied enough support around a lackluster stock to dramatically redirect expectations. When that happens—as it also later did with other shaky so-called meme stocks, like AMC movie theaters, the Express clothing retailer, and electronics manufacturer Blackberry—massive hedge funds who bet big on the continued decline of such companies lose catastrophic amounts of capital. That was part of the appeal of such movements too.
“I think it’s definitely about fairness,” Gillespie says. “There is this real divide that’s happening in the country in terms of wealth, and it always feels like everything is rigged for the rich in a way. So this is one of those nice moments where it went the other way.”
At least, for a while.
While GameStop buyers saw their modest net worths multiply, those gains came at a cost to the big-money short sellers, who were blindsided by a reported $6 billion-plus in losses by the end of January 2021. It was not a cost they were willing to incur without fighting back.
Leading the sprawling ensemble of Dumb Money is Dano’s Keith Gill, a real-life YouTuber who posted under the name Roaring Kitty. He helped inspire the movement to drive up GameStop stock through a series of offbeat, at times amateurish, but always exceptionally earnest videos. With his grandma-friendly kitten T-shirts, his Rambo-style scarlet headband, and his actual basement-dweller backdrop, he looked ridiculous compared to the buttoned-up analysts who typically proffered investment wisdom on the financial news networks.
To his fellow online denizens, Gill’s silly style made him endearing and trustworthy. “I saw that as somebody who’s unafraid to say, ‘This is me,’” Dano says. “We all worry about what people think about us, and how we dress, and blah, blah, blah. When you see somebody who’s owning themself, I think it always has a natural charisma.”
Dano says Roaring Kitty gave him a playful, free-spirited escape after back-to-back heavy roles as The Riddler in The Batman and a dramatized version of Steven Spielberg’s father in The Fabelmans. Woodley costars as Gill’s wife and real-world confidant Caroline, while Davidson is Kevin, his madcap brother, a food-delivery dead-ender who marvels at Gill’s ability to manipulate a system not meant for people like them. With their life savings on the line, Woodley’s character tries to guide Roaring Kitty with careful counsel, while Davidson is more or less the devil on his shoulder.
“Shailene was such a wonderful scene partner. And I had such a great time with Pete,” Dano says. “I really felt like I was 16 again, and just with my friends in high school in the backseat of a car. I haven’t laughed that hard in a while.”
Although the real-life absurdity of the GameStop rally is undeniable, it was a sometimes punishing experience for some of the everyday investors who took the ride. Ferrera’s character, Jenny Campbell, is one such example. The fictionalized amalgam is inspired by several real-life figures who invested everything they had.
Campbell is a nurse and single mother who is inspired by Roaring Kitty’s passion to put her nest egg into the video game store’s stock. As others like her join in, she sees her contribution growing into a small fortune. But she’s also such a true believer that she is reluctant to get out when the stock reaches its apparent peak.
“This is a character who seems like she’s living paycheck to paycheck,” Ferrera says. “She doesn’t have the privilege of losing it all and knowing that there is going to be a safety net there for her.”
Other buyers include Talia Ryder and Myha’la Herrold as Harmony and Riri, two college students who join the buy-in, and Ramos as an actual GameStop store clerk, who sees an opportunity to escape his minimum-wage gig—and his obnoxious boss (played by Dane DeHaan)—if his investment surges high enough.
Gillespie says Dumb Money also tries to capture the underlying and overwhelming dissatisfaction that rampaged through the culture during lockdown—and persists to today. “Obviously, with what was going on with COVID, the alienation, the wanting to connect with other people…there was also the Black Lives Matter movement going on. There were a lot of ways that people were trying to speak out or just be heard. This became a vehicle for that,” the filmmaker says. “They got to give the middle finger to the banking industry and also make some money along the way. It was a win-win.”
Ferrera believes her character represents those who took part in the GameStop run for reasons beyond financial profit. “Money was only one element of that,” Ferrera says. “In fact, she had far more to lose than to gain. There was this element of being a part of something big, something that felt like sticking it to the people on top. There was a real defiance in it.”
Dumb Money aims to complicate its story of Davids vs. Goliaths. While some characters are more naturally sympathetic than others, Ferrera’s nurse also finds herself guided by much less altruistic motives. “Throw in a little bit of greed,” she says. “In the movie, there’s the idea that wanting more because you can get more is not exclusive to billionaires. That’s a tension that we all experience in one way or another.”
On the less-than-sympathetic end of the spectrum is Dumb Money’s menagerie of money managers. Rogen plays real-life Melvin Capital founder Gabe Plotkin, whose hedge fund lost about half its value in the GameStop uprising. As the movie begins, he’s trying to buy a mansion next door to his current mansion so he can tear it down and put in a tennis court for his family’s amusement during the pandemic.
While his eventual desperation is palpable, he’s hardly the underdog. While performers frequently say they feel the need to connect with their character’s point of view, even when unsavory, Rogen is not one of them. “I don’t need to like the person in order to play them,” he says. “I feel a lot of actors feel, ‘Oh, yeah, you have to see the true humanity…’ And you should see the humanity in everybody, I guess. But he’s not someone I was particularly sympathetic towards.”
Rogen says he found it comical how mundane these supposed financial “masters of the universe” could be. “No one wants to lose billions of dollars, I’m sure. But at the end of the day, this guy is still very rich,” he says. “I think there’s an image in film of these finance guys, that they are very aggressive and it’s a very crass world. I think The Wolf of Wall Street has a level of intrigue and adrenaline to all of it, but from my experience with these guys, it’s like, yeah, they’ll make billions of dollars, or lose billions of dollars. None of it’s going to affect their life that much.