Freakonomics (United States, 2010)

October 01, 2010
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Freakonomics Poster

Freakonomics is a most atypical documentary indeed. Comprised of a collection of shorts by noted filmmakers Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), and Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), Freakonomics romps through the playground developed by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner in their bestselling non-fiction collection of essays, Freakonomics. The resulting documentary, although widely uneven, is fascinating and compelling. And, although many of the subjects may initially seem disconnected, they have an interlocking underlying theme: everything in life is driven by incentives and one key to coming out on top is discovering what the incentives are in a given situation. To make their points, the filmmakers often rely on statistics, which brings to mind the old adage (as popularized by Mark Twain): "Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics."

Freakonomics contains four major chapters. Each of these is buffered by smaller vignettes and additional ancillary material not substantive enough for its own lengthy sequence. Directed by Seth Gordon, these "bridge" segments primarily combine a sit-down interview with Levitt and Dubner with inserts of crude animation and archived news clips.

Spurlock's episode, "A Roshanda by Any Other Name," asks the question of whether the name given to a child can influence the life he/she lives. The general answer is "no," but an investigation reveals something reminiscent of a scene from Gentleman's Agreement. A large number of resumes are sent to various companies. The resumes are identical except for the name. One group of resumes has a "white" name while the other group has a "black" name. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the acceptance rate is significantly higher for the "white" resumes than the "black" ones, indicating that institutional prejudice still exists (not that this will surprise many people).

"Pure Corruption," by Alex Gibney, begins by questioning why teachers might cheat to improve the standardized test scores of their students then transitions to an investigation of cheating in Sumo wrestling. The segment not only makes a compelling case that some wrestlers are throwing matches but that murders may have been committed in an attempt to keep this quiet. Two ex-wrestler whistle-blowers died under mysterious circumstances before they could hold a press conference and their deaths were not treated as suspicious by the Japanese police.

Eugene Jarecki's "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life" uses liberal clips from the Frank Capra classic It's a Wonderful Life in an ironic fashion. This portion of the movie attempts to discern why the rates of violent crimes, which had been on the increase during the 1980s, unexpectedly dropped during the 1990s. The theory Jarecki embraces (as set forth in the print version of Freakonomics) is that the legalization of abortion following Roe v. Wade resulted in fewer unwanted pregnancies. Since there is a correlation between undesired children and adolescent/early adult criminal activity, the reduction of such births through abortion could be tied to a decrease in violent crime during the years when those children would have reached their late teens and 20s. It's a controversial theory (as the movie acknowledges) but Levitt and Dubner stand by it, stating that they do not advocated abortion as a means to reduce crime, but this is where the facts led them.

The final segment in Freakonomics is Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" Working from the hypothesis that offering high school students financial incentives to improve their grades will increase graduation rates, the University of Chicago tries a pilot program at a local school by which ninth graders who achieve certain standards are paid small stipends. The results are disappointing, with only a marginal level of improvement in overall performance, although it is speculated that more than $50 per grade might lead to better results. Ewing and Grady follow two "sample" subjects, one whose grades get better and one who fails altogether. The experiment is interesting but the segment does not answer the title question in a meaningful fashion.

Taken as a whole, Freakonomics feels almost like an extended episode of 60 Minutes with a lot of childish animation and some awkward connecting sequences. The documentary explores many of the same areas that the authors wrote about in the book, although to limit the length, certain chapters have been elided (including how the Ku Klux Klan applies information control). Some parts of the movie are more satisfying and intriguing than others, but there are enough surprising and non-intuitive revelations that even the most jaded viewer will likely learn a thing or two.

As with many documentaries, there's a question about whether this one deserves a trip to a movie theater. There's nothing inherently cinematic about Freakonomics; seeing it on a smaller screen will not damage the experience. Still, at a time when the documentary format has become infected with Reality Show-itis, it's refreshing to find one that employs a more traditional approach. Freakonomics does some intellectually intriguing things with subjects that could easily be considered, at least based on a cursory description, to be dry and uninteresting, and that makes it worth an investment of 95 minutes.

Freakonomics (United States, 2010)