Dumb Money Misses the Point About Its Meme-Stock Underdogs

The film dramatizes the pandemic-era mania around GameStop and WallStreetBets, but misunderstands the realities of financial markets.


Remember "stonks"? Remember "hodl"? Remember "to the moon"? Remember a strange man with long hair, a red headband, and ironic cat T-shirts speaking into his webcam about the stock market to members of the House Financial Services Committee in Congress? If you are somehow nostalgic for the time in which these words and characters entered our national lexicon, then Dumb Money might be the movie for you. 

Dumb Money plays out during the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many Americans were shut indoors and much of the world seemed to have simply emptied out. Instead of partaking in large communal gatherings, people interacted online, on Zoom, and social media—and when they did venture into populated places, they wore masks that made it exceptionally annoying and difficult to communicate with others. Dumb Money is at its best as a low-key pandemic period piece, capturing the quiet, lonely oddness and anxiety of this era. While it is not the film's primary point, it works best as a story about one of the many collective manias that took hold during this period. 

Specifically, it tells the mostly true story of the collective furor around the Reddit forum WallStreetBets and a handful of stock picks, most notably the mall-based video game retailer GameStop, which became known as "meme stocks" thanks to its popularity with small-time retail investors who frequented crass, meme-heavy message boards. 

Much of this activity was driven by Keith Gill, a small-time investor with a penchant for cat imagery who went by the online alias Roaring Kitty. Thanks in part to Gill's videos promoting the stock, GameStop's share price rocketed upwards. As a result, Gill and others who bought in early quickly saw the value of their stocks increase massively—at least on paper. Moreover, as these small-time investors saw their holdings increase in value, large funds that had shorted GameStop—effectively betting that it would drop in value or fail—lost money. As losses mounted, one large fund, Melvin Capital, eventually had to shut down. 

Dumb Money tries to present this as a relatively straightforward David and Goliath story, an underdog tale about little-guy investors who stick it to moneyed institutional investors. A final title card argues that because of Gill and the GameStop stock drama, big Wall Street firms must now pay attention to "dumb money"—the derogatory term large investment firms use to dismiss small individual investors they see as less savvy. Like The Big Short before it, the oft-expository movie wades through the jargon and systematic complexity of the financial market: There are explainer-y bits on short squeezes and references to "payment for order flow," a business model employed by Robinhood, the trading app that powered much of the GameStop frenzy. Yet as knotty as all these market mechanisms might seem, Dumb Money tells an essentially simplistic story about how the system is rigged to benefit the rich and powerful at the expense of the little guy. 

And the problem is that the real story is anything but simplistic. Fundamentally, the big-money short sellers the movie presents as villains were right about GameStop: It's a troubled company on the decline. Not only was it hit hard by the pandemic, which decimated in-person, mall-based retail, but it's been beset by management and leadership problems, and its business model is under external threat from the rise in digital video game downloads. The big firms shorting GameStop were obviously trying to make money. They were also providing meaningful market information about the company's likely chances. 

Meanwhile, the movie's hero, Keith Gill, pushed the stock onto less-savvy individual investors, many of whom ended up losing money in the end. Although we don't know exactly what has happened to Gill since 2021 as he has receded from public life, when we last heard from him, the value of his GameStop stocks had risen to tens of millions of dollars. 

The point is not really that Gill is a villain—he was playing the markets just as everyone else was, and he appears to have come out as a winner. But many of the little guys who participated in what the movie casts as his revolution lost money in the process, betting on a company that remains on shaky ground.  

Dumb Money does not entirely shy away from showing those losses; along with Gill, the film follows a handful of fictionalized GameStop investors, including Jennifer, a nurse played by America Ferrara, who becomes obsessed with Gill and GameStop stock, buys in big, and ends up losing money after failing to sell at the top. But it indulges in an unconvincing heroes-and-villains triumphalism that reality simply doesn't support.

Moreover, the film resolves in a strange showdown, in which the major players in the GameStop finance farce all have to testify before the House Financial Services committee. Here we see Democratic lawmakers portrayed as reformers fighting for the little guy. It's worth recalling, however, that at the time, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, possibly the Democratic party's most prominent policy entrepreneur, was calling for federal regulators to step in to shut down the meme-stock maniacs this movie lionizes. Meanwhile, as a title card notes, the Securities and Exchange Commission investigated the GameStop episode and took no action against the big firms involved. Nor is it obvious what sort of regulatory intervention would even theoretically be warranted. 

The real story of Dumb Money is not that the little guys toppled the big guys, or that the big guys tried to rig the system and heroic federal lawmakers took them down a peg. It's that a bunch of stocks-obsessed weirdos on an internet forum found what amounts to an exploitable loophole in the financial system that would allow them to do something they saw as both epic and funny: wreck the balance sheet of a very large investment firm by buying a nostalgia stock associated with video games. Many of them did it for money, and a few lucky investors even won big. But many of them did it, well, for the lulz—for sheer chaotic amusement, because chaos is often funny, and because in the dreary depths of the pandemic, you had to do something to pass the time. Dumb Money is a nicely made, often human, and affecting movie, especially if you don't know too much about the real-life events it's based on.

But it largely misses the mischievous prankster's sensibility that drove much of the GameStop frenzy, recasting it into something more noble. It's not a bad movie, exactly, but it's too earnest, too in thrall to a simplistic moral worldview. This is a story about stonks, vulgar memes, and bizarre cat videos as much as it's one about financial system intricacies; frankly, it could have used a lot more lulz.