An adaptation of University of Chicago economics professor Steven Levitt and New York-based journalist Stephen Dubner’s 2005 book about hidden and surprising causality, Freakonomics represents an unusual cinematic experiment, bringing together as collaborative directors the documentary filmmakers behind Super Size Me, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Jesus Camp, Why We Fight and The King of Kong.
The title of the book stems from Levitt’s coined term about social science research and other empirical data shattering common (but untrue) assumptions about human behavior, and society. Breaking from the convention of more structured, formal review, it’s just easier to flat-out say what doesn’t really work about Freakonomics, especially since its partitioned structure and insistent flitting to and fro makes the movie come off as a hit-and-miss collection of appetizers. I’m generally a sucker for these sorts of documentaries — movies that take big, meaty swings at matters political, anthropological and/or behavioral — but this movie is wildly uneven, and doesn’t really coalesce in a meaningful way.
There are basically two segments in Freakonomics that connect. The first is helmed by Morgan Spurlock, and looks at whether there is such a thing as a financial value in a baby’s name — whether it’s a predictive or determining factor in adult happiness, opportunity or wealth. Given its focus on the unique nature of certain predominantly African-American names, this is a fascinating inquiry, whatever one’s previously staked out position or lack thereof, precisely because it’s something recognized in perceptive circles but wildly underdiscussed. In the other engaging portion, Eugene Jarecki investigates Levitt’s original research which postulates that the national drop in crime rates in the 1990s stemmed chiefly not from new law enforcement measures enacted by politicians (sorry, Rudy Giuliani and Bill Clinton), but instead the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973, which allowed for choice in pregnancy
The rest of Freakonomics is a collection of sputters and half-measures, however, weaved together by interstitial
interludes from Seth Gordon, which provide a bit of context and sit-down commentary from the authors. Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing’s look at attempts to incentivize high school learning with cold hard cash provides moments of engagement courtesy of some of its teenage subjects, but only scratches the surface of their relationship to continued education, and fails to really give a voice to those conducting the research program. Alex Gibney’s look at the crumbling façade of sumo wrestling’s honor
system, meanwhile, weighs Freakonomics down (no pun intended) mightily. Stretching on for far too long in the film’s middle, it’s so self-satisfied with its uncovering of Japanese corruption and bribery that it fails to acknowledge its insights or revelations are far less about any sociocultural specificity than they are about… money. As in: where people can make large amounts of money betting, corruption and gaming will follow. For more information on the movie, click here. (Magnolia, PG-13, 93 minutes)