Almost a century after the crash that triggered the Great Depression, almost no lesson learned has gone unlearnt. Our economy is more hogtied than ever to the vagaries of the stock market, its worst slumps invariably paid for by those Americans who least profit from its bonanzas. Regulation designed to protect citizens from trading-sector recklessness is forever being weakened, while Average Joe and Jane salaries have grown completely severed from skyrocketing corporate wealth now directed entirely towards benefitting shareholders and executives.
The game is, as they say, fixed. This ought to be a cause for far more outrage than it generates… but along with every other lamentable development in public perception, there’s the fact that many being screwed by the system have gotten brainwashed into thinking that their not being screwed would somehow constitute dangerous “socialism.” They think the boom in greedy billionaires is a testament to entrepreneurial industry they too might some day emulate. As opposed to, you know, the elite-enriching end product of people like them dying the slow death via a thousand tiny financial cuts.
Wealth has always fascinated cinema, which natch panders to our fantasies. The realities of economics? Not so much. It’s been particularly depressing that with the rare exception of something like 2014’s 99 Homes (which few saw), commercial narrative features generally prefer to celebrate the predators in movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and plain old Wall Street, whose cursory finger-waggling at such wolves gets buried under a ton of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Shameless” vicariousness. Even supposed exposé The Big Short was so snarky, half the time it seemed to be mocking (or ignoring) the unfunny reality of lay people losing their homes, and shirts, in order to ride along with the high rollers who profited as a result.
Ergo Dumb Money comes as a pleasant surprise—albeit one that’s rolling into theaters this Fri/22 in mid-September with surprisingly little hoopla for a prestige subject. It’s probably better than any mainstream release I’ve seen this year, with the possible exception of the very different, animated Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. If it had focused entirely on the glam fatcats, as played by bigger stars, would Sony have held it until December, with a big Oscar campaign? Who knows. What I do know is that this movie speaks to the notion of “economic inequality” more astutely and ambitiously than any big-screen Hollywood endeavor in aeons.
“Based on the insane true story” (as the ads put it), Craig Gillespie’s film dramatizes a very recent financial-sector “scandal”: The time about thirty months ago when a whole lot of “amateur” investors did what you are never, ever supposed to do—“betting against Wall Street”—and wound up pushing some low-valued stocks through the roof.
The David briefly slaying Goliath in this scenario was one Keith Gill (played here by Paul Dano), a Boston-area financial analyst with no major-league connections or inside intel. While day-jobbing at insurance company MassMutual, he enjoyed in off-hours posting his personal investment strategies on Reddit and in YouTube videos. This encompassed an arguably irrational enthusiasm for electronics/gaming retailer GameStop, which caught on among his online followers. Such that its stock values began to climb and climb, benefitting himself as well as a lot of other “little guys.”
“Dumb money” is what Wall Street calls just such independent investors, whose leap-of-faith cash generally goes straight down the drain, then into the pockets of elite brokerage firms and their clients. A rare windfall for Joe Blows can only be good news for everybody, right? Well, not in fact for those firms, whose enormous profits rely to a significant extent on stocks designated as crap staying crappy.
GameStop’s triumph was actually a catastrophe for more than one hedge fund (concerned parties played by Seth Rogan, Nick Offerman, and Vincent D’Onofrio) that counted on no such underdog activity. It also wound up having dire consequences for various trading platforms (including Menlo Park-based Robinhood, whose founders are portrayed by Sebastian Stan and Rushi Kota) that caved to pressure from above, pulling some ethically dubious moves to stop the prole-enriching bloodbath. All this eventually led to accusations of market manipulation, lawsuits, subpoenas, and a Congressional hearing.
Though Dumb Money is in many ways an indictment, it is not (just) another tale of peasants getting reamed by our financial feudal overlords. Nor, on the other hand, is it a simplistic inspirational story of the “little people” getting their own for once. It is all those things, comingled in a fashion that is both clear-eyed and highly ambivalent.
The figures already named would certainly make for a dramatic torn-from-headlines story, particularly with Shailene Woodley and Pete Davidson filling out Team Kevin as his wife and ne’er-do-well brother, respectively. But the master stroke of Lauren Schuker Blum and Rebecca Angelo’s script (based on Ben Mezrich’s nonfiction tome The Antisocial Network) is how it broadens that core conflict to encompass a wide spectrum of Americans on the low end of the economic totem pole, who—perhaps foolishly—stake their hopes for financial rescue on Gill’s hunches. Every major character here is introduced with onscreen text announcing their net worth.
In the case of the Wall Street types, that ranges in the millions to billions. But as large as such swells loom in the public imagination, the public itself is now overwhelmingly dominated by those with scant financial insulation to show for a lifetime of work—or worse, a pantsload of debt.
Their number here prominently include America Ferrera as a struggling single-mom hospital nurse; a lesbian couple (Talia Ryder, Myha’la Herrold) neck-deep in student loans while still in college; and Anthony Ramos as a clerk at an actual GameStop mall outlet. The odds are so stacked against them already, these people have almost nothing to lose by gambling on stocks—though we hold our breath anyway when they hold out, refusing to sell as we fear this particular bubble is about to burst. No one will bail them out the day that happens. They will be collateral damage, as Wall Street lives to rise and plunge another day.
There’s a lot of information here, but unlike in say Oppenheimer, Gillespie & co. never overwhelm narrative engagement with it. This movie is fun, with elements of caper, thriller, “true crime,” upbeat family drama, and complex societal-crossection mosaic. It carries its serious themes lightly, without trivializing them, and provides some hope of a more balanced world without sugarcoating how uphill that battle will be. Whatever your takeaway, it manages as few recent films have to render vivid a ladder in which ever-increasing Americans must dwell at the bottom (like Door Dash deliverer Davidson) so that few “vampires” at the top can have their infinity pools and accounts in the Caymans.
Money, or the desire for it, also makes people do strange things—to a considerably more melodramatic, even ghoulish degree—in writer-director Sebastien Marnier’s The Origin of Evil. It’s a very twisty sort of black comedy-slash-intrigue that turns out to be a mystery/crime story, and as such provides greater bang for your buck than the coy likes of the Knives Out movies or Kenneth Branagh’s Agatha Christie adaptations.
Laure Calamy of My Donkey, My Lover & I and Full Time plays another beleaguered working-class French heroine here, one who works on the assembly line at a fish-packing plant. The pay there evidently doesn’t provide a lot of lifestyle leeway, as she’s thrown into crisis when the landlady’s daughter decides to move back into the room she’s occupying, leaving her homeless.
That prods her into contacting the father she never knew, Serge Dumontet (Jacques Weber), a wealthy entrepreneur in ill health after a stroke. He welcomes her to his rather awe-inspiring gated seaside estate, but she gets a significantly frostier reception from the women already in his life: Waspish current spouse Louise (Dominique Blanc), openly hostile daughter George (Doria Tillier), and wised-up granddaughter Jeanne (Celeste Brunnquell), as well as Mrs. Danvers-like housekeeper Agnes (Veronique Ruggia). Already at argumentative odds with the patriarch, they bristle at the arrival of a newcomer they suspect he might use against them in a power struggle over his small empire. And indeed, he soon does just that.
We are inclined at first to see Calamy’s protagonist as a sort of comic-strip Cathy stumbled into an Edward Gorey panel—a wide-eyed innocent plonked into a Gothic landscape of ruthless, privileged schemers. But that proves a misreading that Marnier’s script takes its time clarifying. This heroine is not quite so guileless as she appears. She’s got an incarcerated female lover (Suzanne Clement) with whom her relationship appears complex, then only grows more so. (I’ve deliberately omitted some character names here, because… well, you’ll understand why when you see the film.) Nor is Serge the frail old gent in need of support against greedy relatives that we initially glean—indeed, those relatives may have very good reason to treat him with the wariness and loathing they would a venomous snake.
Not announcing its big narrative surprises in advance, The Origin of Evil is disconcertingly droll and nonchalant as its plot gradually embraces sociopathy, identity theft, domestic violence, even murder. It’s not a home-run, but you certainly can’t say its bases aren’t very loaded. The insidiously clever (but credible-enough) revelations and reversals of fate keep coming right up to a gem of a cruelly ironic fadeout. IFC Films opens the feature (which simultaneously releases to On Demand platforms) this Fri/22 at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission.