Ben Mezrich is best known for his 2009 nonfiction book, The Accidental Billionaires: The Founding of Facebook, A Tale of Sex, Money, Genius, and Betrayal, which was quickly made into The Social Network, an Oscar-winning film. His book The Antisocial Network: The GameStop Short Squeeze and the Ragtag Group of Amateur Traders That Brought Wall Street to Its Knees, published in 2021, tells another tale at the intersection of money and technology (and boasts an even more unwieldy title). It has also inspired a movie adaptation, Dumb Money, but it’s one that’s unlikely to win any awards.
Both the book and film tell the story of how amateur investors, including a significant group that frequented the Reddit forum WallStreetBets, managed to drive up the stock price of struggling video game retailer GameStop to a stratospheric $500 per share. Many bought in via easy-to-use apps such as Robinhood, which charged no commissions on trades. Numerous WallStreetBets’ users were inspired by popular Reddit posts and YouTube videos by Keith Gill, a MassMutual financial analyst who went by the online handles DeepFuckingValue and RoaringKitty. He firmly expressed his opinion that GameStop’s stock was undervalued and invested more than $50,000 of his own money in it. (He’s played by Paul Dano in the film, who portrays him as a sweet family man; his wife is played by Shailene Woodley—one of the few women in this story.)
Hedge funds such as Melvin Capital, founded by trader Gabe Plotkin (amusingly played by a flustered Seth Rogen), had taken massive short positions on GameStop stock—that is, they were betting heavily that the stock price would go down. If they were correct, they would profit handsomely, but if they were wrong, they would experience huge losses covering their positions, which would drive the price of the stock even further—an event known as a short squeeze. In January 2021, amateur traders caused the stock to rise so high that Melvin Capital lost billions of dollars.
The spike forced Robinhood and other trading firms to temporarily halt the buying of GameStop stock, which quickly drove the price back down. Conspiratorial Reddit users became suspicious. Some saw their GameStop stock purchases as not just a wise investment but also part of a heroic endeavor: a way for average joes to take on the massive financial establishment. Now, they thought, that establishment was fighting back, and fighting dirty.
The book and movie follow various figures in the drama, including Gill, Plotkin, and Robinhood co-founder Vlad Tenev (played by Sebastian Stan as a sketchy tech bro), as well as several amateur investors, some of whose names have been changed. The intention seems to be to show how the GameStop squeeze affected people of all backgrounds and classes; in practice, though, the story is just a disjointed mess.
It's hard not to compare this film to The Big Short (2015), director Adam McKay’s brilliant adaptation of Michael Lewis’ bestselling 2010 book about how the housing bubble of the early 2000s triggered a massive financial crisis. Complex financial machinations require detailed explanations to be intelligible to a general audience; The Big Short deftly supplied these with fourth-wall-breaking cameos by such celebrities as chef Anthony Bourdain, movie star Margot Robbie, and actor/singer Selena Gomez, who lucidly and entertainingly laid out such knotty concepts as subprime mortgages and collateralized debt obligations.
Dumb Money, by contrast, offers exceedingly vague explanations of key ideas, such as “payment for order flow”—a practice of bundling trades and selling them to third-party firms that made Robinhood’s no-commission business model possible—or how the National Securities Clearing Commission’s policies caused a financial crisis that forced Robinhood to temporarily halt sales of GameStop on their platform. These are important concepts that viewers need to understand for the story to make sense; we need to know how the system works.
This isn’t the only way in which the movie is suspiciously vague. Some filmmaking choices seem calculated to make characters more sympathetic to a wide audience. For example, one amateur investor, named Kim Campbell in the book, is described at length as an enthusiastic Trump supporter; the politics of her counterpart in the film, played by America Ferrera, are a convenient mystery. The movie also significantly plays down the fact that WallStreetBets users regularly employed what Mezrich calls “pretty disgusting language,” freely referring to themselves as retards and autists because they thought it was funny.
The filmmakers—including director Craig Gillespie and writers Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo—strive mightily to portray these folks as modern heroes. Viewers expecting a moving anti-capitalist story about little guys sticking it to the man will have to watch some other, better movie; this one simply portrays a bunch of Redditors trying to use the levers of capitalism to get rich and accomplishing very little in the long term. The subtitle of Mezrich’s book asserts that the amateur traders brought Wall Street to its knees, but, in fact, Wall Street got right back up. Yes, some hedge-fund managers lost billions, but they still had billions left to throw around. The system rolled on, like nothing ever happened—which, frankly, isn’t all that inspiring.
David Rapp is the senior Indie editor.