Directed by Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing. (2010, PG-13, 93 min.)
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Oct. 1, 2010
Freakonomics, the runaway nonfiction book that improbably spent two years on The New York Times bestseller list, is now, just as improbably, a movie. The film is something of a documentary omnibus, with four segments created by top nonfiction filmmakers of the day and an introduction and transitional segments by Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters). Like the book, the film calls on us to tear off the blinders of conventional wisdom and find answers in the demonstrability of data. The authors, economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubnar, are on hand to discuss some of the book’s many provocative hypotheses, which are conveyed primarily in the film’s intro and connecting sequences. The various filmmakers deliver admirable pieces that illustrate several of the book’s theories, finding narrative threads and visual ideas to convey the book’s conceptual constructs and statistics. First up is “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” by Super Size Me’s Spurlock, in which the long-term social effects of bestowing an identifiably black name on a child are studied. Turns out that children with such names achieve less-successful lifetime outcomes than their peers, but the authors ascertain that this is due to other social factors, such as poverty and single motherhood. Oscar-winner Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) turns in the most nuanced segment with “Pure Corruption,” which uses the fixed bouts of Japanese sumo wrestlers to demonstrate how cheating is often hidden in plain sight. He ties this fact to the recent downfall of the American economy, in which swindlers like Bernard Madoff can make out like bandits with our complicit approval. Cause and effect is studied in “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” by Jarecki (The Trials of Henry Kissinger). Here he explores one of the book’s most controversial theses: that the decline in national crime statistics in the 1990s is due not to such things as increased police vigilance and more stringent prison sentences but, rather, to the Roe v. Wade abortion ruling of 1973, which reduced the number of unwanted children, thereby reducing the number of troubled children and their crimes. Finally, “Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?” by Grady and Ewing (Jesus Camp) looks at a Chicago-area experiment that incentivized students with cash rewards for good grades. Lots of ideas are tossed around in Freakonomics, and it often feels as though one is trapped in some kind of pop centrifuge. None of the authors’ arguments is contested in any way, and the zippiness of the film paints everything with a Teflon sheen. Still, there is more material here to chew on than in a dozen other documentaries combined. And that’s a good thing. No?