The smart money is on this real-life revenge-of-the-nerd story

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(MA) 104 minutes

As a rule, the financial sector isn’t the place to look for feelgood stories. An exception was the GameStop short squeeze of early 2021, when members of an online investment forum came together to buy up shares in a flagging US chain of video-game stores, drastically boosting the stock’s value and catching the Wall Street establishment unawares.

Paul Dano plays Keith “Roaring Kitty” Gill in Dumb Money.Credit: AP

No less taken aback were observers in the media, who were quick to note this David and Goliath story had “the makings of a Hollywood flick”. A couple of years on, Dumb Money is exactly that, brought to us by the Australian-born director Craig Gillespie (I, Tonya) from a script by former Wall Street Journal reporters Rebecca Angelo and Lauren Schuker Blum.

This is the breeziest kind of business docudrama, somewhere between the deadpan of The Social Network and the farce of The Big Short: enough jargon to let us feel like insiders, enough satire to feed our resentment as outsiders, and enough character comedy to keep us engaged, even if we couldn’t care less about the subject-matter.

At its core it’s a revenge-of-the-nerd story, the nerd in question being unorthodox financial analyst Keith Gill (Paul Dano), who goes by “Roaring Kitty” on YouTube. It’s easy to see why traditional investment pros would write him off as a joke: there’s a touch of Wayne’s World to the videos he livestreams from his basement in suburban Massachusetts, modelling a range of internet-friendly cat T-shirts while urging his followers to get on the GameStop express.

The key to Dano’s layered performance is that Keith isn’t trying to be anything he’s not: he’s a weirdo and a hustler, but so open in both regards he seems basically well-adjusted, when he isn’t squabbling with his loser brother (Pete Davidson) in the back of their parents’ car. We can see why he’s trusted by his fellow retail investors, and by his devoted wife (played by Shailene Woodley, who commits so fully to being supportive she almost succeeds in making this trait interesting).

Keith’s videos are the hub of the film, connecting otherwise separate worlds. Several fictionalised subplots follow small-time investors caught up in GameStop fever, including a downtrodden young store clerk (Anthony Ramos), a couple of college students (Myha’la Herrold and Talia Ryder) in heavy debt and a nurse (America Ferrara) on the frontline of the pandemic, all portrayed, rather too insistently, as salt-of-the-earth ordinary folk.

Elsewhere, the representatives of privilege are called out by their real names, most prominently the hedge-fund manager Gabe Plotkin, played in an effective bit of stunt-casting by a tamped-down Seth Rogen, formerly America’s favourite slacker.

Holed up in his Florida mansion for most of the movie, Gabe is far from a villain in his own mind: like most Rogen characters, he sees himself as a reasonable dude, which in this case entails the reasonable assumption that losers like Keith are there to be fleeced.

Dumb Money is funny, absorbing, and often suspenseful, especially once Keith and his followers face the choice of whether to stay on the GameStop train or leap off before the inevitable crash. It’s also more openly about class than Hollywood movies tend to be, though its populism remains the cautious, middle-of-the-road kind, leaving it to the viewer to decide what the story might imply about the broader state of the US in a more than usually tumultuous era.

From another angle, it’s one more demonstration of the age-old principle that nothing is more American than a get-rich-quick scheme, except for the kind of self-styled maverick typically found peddling such schemes, on YouTube or elsewhere.

Dumb Money is released in cinemas on October 26.

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