Paul Dano as Keith Gill in Dumb Money (2023). Courtesy of Sony.
Since his initial foray into the realm of biographical films with 2014’ “Million Dollar Arm,” the true story of an American sports agent who turned two exceptionally talented cricket bowlers into Major League Baseball pitchers, director Craig Gillespie has made it his mission to reinvent the biopic. After getting his feet wet with Disney’s tried-and-true sports biopic formula, Gillespie went on to forge a path of his own, wholly disinterested in the genre’s conventions and what people have come to expect from movies about capital-i-Important people.
Gillespie’s biopics are unpredictably unique, each of them with a stylistic approach befitting the story he’s telling. They are character studies (“I, Tonya”) and ensemble comedies (“Pam & Tommy);” ticking time bombs that take American cultural mores to task, interrogating our collective, insatiable hunger for dramatic recapitulation. He not only lends a deeply empathetic hand to his subjects, but an acute awareness toward the cultural conditions that made these people significant in the first place.
His latest piece, “Dumb Money,” is a bona fide freight train of a movie. Sitting among 2023’s surplus of relentlessly-paced blockbusters, Gillespie’s retelling of the GameStop stock revolution may just be the most exciting film of the year. With an irresistible ensemble cast of established and emerging talent alike (move over, “Oppenheimer”), Gillespie’s film plays out like a chess game comprised almost entirely of blind faith and blunders.
Paul Dano stars as Keith Gill, known colloquially on Reddit’s /r/WallStreetBets page as Roaring Kitty. Like all of his viewers, Gill is what’s known as a retail trader, an average joe who plays the stock market with petty cash. However, he’s also a licensed broker who’s been keeping a close eye on the market. So close, in fact, that he discovers potential in the unlikeliest of places. Because the market is betting against GameStop, Gill thinks that if enough people invest, they can turn the tables on Wall Street and make a little money in the process. Well, a lot of money.
Elsewhere, Seth Rogen appears as real-life hedge fund executive Gabe Plotkin — the same one who lost more than $300 million as a result of Gill’s grassroots movement — while America Ferrera, Anthony Ramos and Myha’la Herrold play some of Roaring Kitty’s most loyal followers. None of the seemingly endless array of terrific performances get lost in the mix, however, thanks to Gillespie’s knack for pacing and character. It never once feels like the actors are trying to keep up with the director’s tempo.
Conversely, the film never needs to slow down to give its characters room to breathe. The execution is downright symphonic, allowing empathy and ire to coexist thanks to an ingenious utilization of cross-cutting. Taking elements of other reverse Robin Hood tales like The Wolf of Wall StreetThe Wolf of Wall Street and The“Big Short,” “Dumb Money” drains every last bit of empathy one could have for the ultrarich and practically pumps its fist in the air in solidarity.
Once again, Gillespie has grounded his retelling story within its time. “Dumb Money” isn’t just about the corrupting influence of money, so much so that it ends up being less about GameStop than it is about a growing inequality in the American economy that was only exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s one of a handful of must-see movies in 2023, and probably the best mainstream movie about the pandemic we’ve seen or will ever see.
The tight and tempered screenplay by Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo bursts with fury while avoiding the pitfalls of veering into “on the nose” territory. And if all of this sounds like a book Ben Mezrich — who penned the nonfiction retelling that would be adapted into “The Social Network” — would write, that’s because it was. Gillespie has every element a director could have at their disposal to make a great film. And he doesn’t waste a single one.
Josef Rodriguez is a writer, filmmaker, and film critic living in New York City.