“Yo, what up everybody. Roaring Kitty here. I’m going to pick a stock and talk about why I think it’s interesting. And that stock is GameStop.”
As a Reddit user, I followed the GameStop short squeeze in early 2021 with great interest as several Wall Street hedge funds were blindsided by loosely coordinated action from retail investors (to whom the finance industry derisively referred as “dumb money”), leading to the Robinhood trading app turning on its own users. Where The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street are “inside out” explanations of financial manipulation that affected the public, Dumb Money focuses on the outsiders breaking in, a grassroots movement that began on the r/WallStreetBets subreddit. The film is candid about the online community’s propensity for crude and offensive memes, reproduced here with the same weight as archival news footage. Presenting events as a “David and Goliath” story (characters are each introduced with their net worth) is an oversimplification but it captures the underlying emotional arc from hope to outrage. Dumb Money often feels like a zeitgeist movie that captures a specific point in time: the COVID pandemic highlighting wealth disparity, the rapid growth of fintech startups, spiralling student debt, and the new influence of TikTok. Craig Gillespie again collaborates with I, Tonya cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis, though here they opt for a more naturalistic style whilst building tension using David Fincher’s technique of cutting between a multitude of camera angles. The ensemble cast is impressive, Paul Dano standing out in his portrayal of Keith Gill, capturing his cadence but finding emotional resonance as well. As Gill has become a very private individual, there is a great deal of speculative material in this dramatisation, though it leans more toward aspects like the supportiveness of his wife rather than sensationalism. Dumb Money is entertaining without really having a message, Gillespie describing the film as “part of the conversation” in its portrayal of an inherently rigged financial system — there is a perhaps unfounded sense of catharsis as Dumb Money shows many regular folk winning despite the lack of structural change; in reality many retail investors also suffered huge losses, represented here only through America Ferrera’s sympathetic portrayal of a nurse burned out by the pandemic. It is a fantasy, then, but a relevant one.
“Barbie has a great day every day. Ken only has a great day if Barbie looks at him.”
Barbie’s opening riff on 2001: A Space Odyssey (seen in the teaser trailer) feels like a statement of intent: it is meaningless to children whilst establishing the themes of feminism and the doll’s historical context. Although Margot Robbie and Ryan Gosling are perfectly cast — each able to portray insecurity and heartache beneath the plastic veneer — director Greta Gerwig was the primary draw for me, because she is such a surprising choice for Mattel to entrust its most valuable brand. She and Noah Baumbach have penned a hugely ambitious script that grapples with identity, women’s liberation, corporate and social satire, and patriarchy within the framework of Barbie and Ken travelling to the real world. I have never seen cellulite used as a call to adventure before, but that is also where the themes begin to muddle. Early on we see how perfection can be its own prison, forcing Barbie to hide her existential crisis, yet her quest for most of the film is restoration of that “perfection”. There is pointed commentary, like the undertone of violence in the attention that Barbie receives in the real world by comparison to Ken. Most of the satire is gentle, however, the film needing to appease its corporate masters and appeal to a core audience which adores the toy. The production design and attention to detail (like a waterless shower) is exquisite, like The Lego Movie embracing the limitations of the toy. Arguably its strongest allegory is when Ken (who as a doll has no identity beyond Barbie’s himbo boyfriend) discovers on arrival in the real world that men can hold all manner of jobs and power, this reversal providing a stark illustration of how important Barbie’s representation of women can be for girls. Yet the narrative result is for Ken to introduce patriarchy to Barbieland and inexplicably succeed. A rant about the cognitive dissonance of being a woman (and, by extension, how it is impossible for a doll representing women to be liked) is astute but swiftly followed by the Barbies manipulating the Kens into turning on one another, culminating in a huge song and dance number (allowing Simu Liu to shine as a rival Ken). Thematically, it’s a bold and broad mess of competing ideas. The thing is, it’s all really entertaining. If superhero films can be praised for their entertainment value despite underdeveloped attempts at sociopolitical commentary, so too can Barbie.
I don’t think I have felt so bittersweet about ending a trilogy since The Lord of the Rings concluded 15 years ago but, fittingly, at its heart the final film is about letting go. Unlike Pixar’s recent string of sequels, Dreamworks Animation is driven more by storytelling than cashing in on nostalgia (writer/director Dean DeBlois conceived the second and third films together), although there are wonderful flourishes that refer back to original film through dialogue, through actions, and through the score. Building these characters over the course of a decade allows for emotion to be conveyed subtly, like a silent gaze from Astrid as she realises how her adherence to values of traditional masculinity unintentionally hurts Hiccup. Viking society continues to provide an excellent backdrop against which to explore modern notions of masculinity (as in the underrated Norsemen TV series), particularly as Hiccup shoulders new burdens as chief. Although the discovery of a female “Light Fury” is the inciting incident that takes the whole village of Berk on the move, the changing relationship between Hiccup and Toothless is the real focus. The swashbuckling action is impressive and keeps the energy high but it rarely feels as compelling as spending time with the characters from Berk, leaving the dragon-poaching subplot often feeling like a distraction (or, more likely, a concession to viewers new to the franchise). These movies have always excelled in presenting majestic vistas and here the exceptional eye for detail is kicked up a notch, in a few places the realism of the environments even making the stylised characters seem a little out of place. Overall this is a delightfully satisfying conclusion that, although lacking the freshness of its predecessors, still retains their magic.
Disclosure: I know personally at least one person involved in the making of this film.