‘Dumb Money’ Should Be the End of the ‘Irreverent True Story’ Comedy
It was 2017, and I was at the Toronto Film Festival. I ran into colleagues who had just seen I, Tonya, a world premiere about Tonya Harding, the controversial figure skater accused of trying to take out her rival Nancy Kerrigan. The story had been tabloid fodder back in 1994, and I wasn’t sure what the movie would be like. My colleagues were still laughing as they walked out of their screening. “It was really funny,” I remember them telling me. “But it was also really well-done.” This opinion quickly became the consensus around the acclaimed dark comedy/mockumentary, which hit theaters later that year and received Oscar nominations for Margot Robbie as Harding and Allison Janney as Harding’s witheringly disapproving mother LaVona Golden. (Janney won an Academy Award for her role.)
I, Tonya was part of a new breed of fact-based film — irreverent, unpretentious, clever. Movies like 2011’s Moneyball and 2015’s The Big Short could be viewed as antecedents, building off the sly humor found in 2010’s The Social Network, which figured out how to make a movie built around a deposition incredibly entertaining. These four films are only sorta kinda similar — they’re all inspired by true stories, all filled with colorful characters with big personalities — but what they have in common is a desire to tell a real-life drama in as engaging a way as possible. And that means emphasizing what’s so funny about these individuals and their situations.
In 2023, I was at the Toronto Film Festival again, and Craig Gillespie, who directed I, Tonya, returned with another world premiere, Dumb Money, which looks at the 2021 GameStop short squeeze that sent Wall Street into a panic. Once again, he’s telling a true story in a mischievous way, rooting for the little guys who tried to take down the One-Percenters who ran hedge funds that were banking on GameStop’s financial ruin. Ordinary investor Keith Gill (Paul Dano) developed a following online, convincing his acolytes that GameStop was a winning stock. It’s a crazy saga, so obviously the only way you can do justice to it is through humor.
I liked Dumb Money fine — it’s well-acted, fast-moving and digs into the economic inequality imperiling this country — but it’s not especially innovative. It’s “irreverent” and “unconventional” in exactly the way these sort of true-life films are these days. I’ve sat through a lot of these movies in the last 12 months, and I’m growing tired of the formula. Does every true story have to be so impishly self-aware?
Based on the book by Ben Mezrich, Dumb Money (which opens wide Friday) zips around the country to different locations and different characters, none of them realizing that they’re on a collision course. Gabe Plotkin (Seth Rogen) is a wealthy fund manager living in Florida. Keith resides in Massachusetts, trying to eke out a living for his family, his rallying around GameStop sending Masters of the Universe like Gabe into a financial panic. (They’ve shorted the stock, so if its value rises, they’re screwed.) Rather than delivering this story in stark, moralistic tones, Dumb Money is breezy and crowd-pleasing, funny and warm. Keith and his fellow working stiffs are heroes, while the hedge-fund bosses are jerks — it’s a complicated financial story reduced to “us” versus “them” cheerleading.
Myriad true-life dramas are feel-good affairs meant to inspire the masses (and win Academy Awards for their progressive messages), but this recent spate of Irreverent True Story Comedies is different. They work overtime to demonstrate that they’re not stuffy, jettisoning the normal sanctimony and pretensions of fact-based dramas — these movies, you see, are hipper than the typical Oscar-bait. (Never mind that some of them actually win Oscars anyway…)
The techniques that are incorporated usually break certain fact-based-drama rules. The Big Short had different celebrities explaining complicated economic jargon directly to camera so that we’ll pay attention — most notably, Margot Robbie naked in a bubble bath. This summer’s Flamin’ Hot — about Richard Montañez (Jesse Garcia), the man who allegedly came up with Flamin’ Hot Cheetos — featured the protagonist delivering a smart-aleck voiceover narration meant to puncture typical biopic solemnity. Tetris and Air contain endless cheeky Reagan-era references, which underline those movies’ carefree spirit. And like I, Tonya, Dumb Money focuses on the quirkiness of its characters and the “Can you believe all this actually happened?!?” tone. In each case, the movie wants to be sure we’re having fun — even if the subject matter might be weighty, don’t worry, we’re all going to have a blast. You’ll learn stuff, but it won’t feel like homework, we swear.
This year has seen a flurry of fact-based films built around consumer products, each of them conceived as a comedy. Wonder why Beanie Babies became a thing? Here’s The Beanie Bubble. Confused about what smartphones were like in the early 21st century? Just watch BlackBerry. Did you ever play Tetris? Well, there’s a whole movie about its early days! Want to relive how Nike talked Michael Jordan into signing a shoe deal? Check out Air! Blame the trend on nostalgia or the increasing stranglehold that corporations have on our lives — most of these films are salutes to capitalism — but they also seem to tap into our unquenchable fondness for explainer videos and bite-sized YouTube history lessons. (We don’t need I Love the ‘80s-style programs anymore: We just make movies about that stuff now.)
Such video clips want to make sure to keep things light, leaning into jokes and a conversational tone, so it’s not a surprise that, by and large, these recent Irreverent True Story films do as well. Dumb Money isn’t about a consumer product, but like those other flicks, it lays out a news event in an appealingly flashy way — bang-bang editing, a catchy soundtrack — meant to make you feel like you’ve got the gist of what happened without feeling mentally taxed. The film is quite funny — particularly when Keith and his loser brother Kevin (Pete Davidson) squabble like little kids — but often, the impish spirit can just feel glib, glossing over the details of a complicated true story in order to ensure the requisite amounts of heart and humor are ladled out.
It’s simplistic to call this the I, Tonya-ification of fact-based films, but that movie seemed to create the template for what we now see again and again. Emphasizing the nutty, salacious quality of Harding’s tabloid story, the film was ironic but also earnest, trying to show the genuine pain and trauma while also chuckling at the goofy white-trash characters. “There’s inherent humor in the circumstances of these events that we’re all so familiar with. They’re so outrageous, some of the situations,” Gillespie said at the time. “So, I love that we have that already going into it, and the audience has that. To be able to reexamine that and surprise the audience, and show that you actually care for these characters because they are real people with real stakes in this absurdity of events that’s going on. That was the challenge, that was exciting — that you’ll come into with a judgment and preconceived notions about Tonya and the incident, and by the end of it hopefully you’ll have some empathy.”
I thought I, Tonya worked largely because of Robbie’s investment in making Harding a complicated, troubled person, but a lot of the rest of the film bordered on cartoonish — it was funny, but it punched down too much for my taste. Nonetheless, the movie’s success opened the door for a whole subgenre of irreverent dramas — some of them overseen by Gillespie — in which the real story’s obvious wackiness is played for laughs, eventually leading to a certain amount of pathos underneath the jokes (hopefully). Soon, though, the formula got stale, risking depicting its characters as caricatures for cheap laughs. Movies like Tetris and The Beanie Bubble encourage us to giggle at the eccentrics, while Dumb Money is led by the nerdy Keith. Dano never mocks Keith’s nerdiness, bringing a vulnerability and depth to the character that the film doesn’t always honor. Along the way, the realness can get sacrificed for gawky spectacle.
These new films are far less sophisticated — both comedically and dramatically — than The Social Network or Moneyball, more in spirit with The Big Short in its “Can you believe this shit?!?” portrayal of an outrageous true story. But that dark comedy, which won filmmaker Adam McKay a screenplay Oscar, was powered by a genuine anger at how Wall Street gamed the system to its own advantage — it was very entertaining but still created a wealth of layered, lived-in characters. But McKay let smugness take over with his next film, Vice, and other Irreverent True Stories are often equally insubstantial in the pursuit of going for easy jokes. Air and Dumb Money are both solid movies — good, not great — but they’re far better than flicks like Flamin’ Hot, which have little to offer beyond a flimsy, cutesy superficiality. Sure, those fact-based films aren’t stuffy, but that doesn’t keep them from sucking.
Maybe this is why, of the recent Irreverent True Story movies, the one I like best is BlackBerry. A fictionalized account that draws from Jacquie McNish and Sean Silcoff’s book Losing the Signal, the film traces the rise and fall of BlackBerry, which first brought smartphones to the world — only to lose out to the superior iPhone. Like many of the films I’ve talked about, BlackBerry is a mixture of comedy and drama, populated by memorable personalities and raging egos, but it’s infinitely less self-consciously hip than those other movies. Sure, there are references to certain period-specific songs, but they’re not obvious. Yes, the characters are dorks — except for Glenn Howerton’s Jim Balsillie, who’s like It’s Always Sunny’s Dennis but even more evil, ambitious and shout-y — but they’re always portrayed in a grounded, realistic way. And although BlackBerry is funny, it doesn’t bend over backward “subverting” the conventions of fact-based dramas. Instead, it’s sharp and subtle, telling the story of two driven men — Jay Baruchel is terrific as geeky but savvy Mike Lazaridis, who invented the tech — destined to be swept aside by market forces they couldn’t control.
Unlike I, Tonya or Dumb Money, BlackBerry really does locate the humanity inside its quirky milieu, making a universal story about greed, insecurity and failure. For as much as I enjoyed Dumb Money, it’s so worried about knocking us over with how zany its story is it’s not actually that shocking or novel. We’ve been so beset with “crazy” true-life sagas in the last few years that I appreciated BlackBerry’s lack of being impressed with itself. It just presents us with some really interesting men who had a wild idea to change how people communicate. The humor isn’t forced on us through gimmicks — the movie just lets us get to know these guys as they realize their dreams and then watch their empire collapse. It’s funny and it’s sad, and it doesn’t spend the whole time congratulating itself over how clever it is.
Maybe the fact-based film doesn’t need to be subverted — as BlackBerry proves, maybe it just needs to be smarter.