In 2005 economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner sent the pointy-headed set a-twitter with their book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything,” in which they applied the dismal science – economics – to a number mysteries and myths. The book was so wildly popular it spawned a New York Times blog, a sequel and now a documentary film.
Like the book, the film is an anthology, with five of America’s most celebrated documentarians tackling separate chapters of the book, and, as with the book, there are times when you can’t shake the felling that you can’t really arrive at an honest answer in the time given.
Morgan Spurlock (“Super-Size Me”) directed "A Roshanda by Any Other Name," an amusing look at the differences in names given by black parents and white parents. Spurlock’s glib style occasionally has the film veering towards racism, but his sincerity (such as it is), on-the-street interviews and the data he mines keep things on point. More interesting than the name choices made by white vs. blacks is Spurlock’s look at the way economic classes cycle through names, with poor people often given their children names associated with the wealthy, who in turn flee those names in favor of long out-of-style names.
As both a narrative and piece of filmmaking, Alex Gibney’s "Pure Corruption" is by far the cream of the “Freakonomics” crop. In it Gibney explores corruption in the world of pro sumo wrestling in Japan, managing to link the scandal to corruption in Tokyo’s police department.
Perhaps the most provocative and controversial section of Dubner’s and Levitt’s book explored the idea that Roe v. Wade was a major contribution to the sudden drop in crime that swept the country in the early ‘90s, which Eugene Jarecki looks at in ominously titled "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life." It’s a tough topic to present in a documentary, and Jarecki falls a bit short despite getting Melvin Van Peebles to narrate and some hyper-stylized animation. In Jarecki’s defense, it’s tough to tell a story in which the central figures are never born.
"Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" is as bleak as its title and the inevitable answer to the question. As is so often the case, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady hit the jackpot in looking for two kids to follow as their school dangles before them cash and prizes in the hopes of motivating them to hit the books. It’s heartbreaking to watch both the promise and shortcomings of the ambitious project.
Woven throughout the film are interviews with Dubner and Levitt as well as vignettes about other topics touched on in the book, all directed by Seth Gordon (“King of Kong”). Dubner and Levitt are as big a nerds as you’d expect – if perfectly decent men – making for not terribly engaging interviews, though Levitt’s story about his daughter’s ingenious gaming of her father’s potty-training system is hilarious.
“Freakonomics” is – not surprisingly -- an uneven film, with moments of greatness and emotional depth. But it too often feels like it’s barely skimming the surface and it seldom seems like the filmmakers are pushing back against Dubner and Levitt’s hypotheses. If you've never read the book, the film covers some interesting ground, but if you have read the book, there's not a lot of new stuff here for you.