Film Review: Freakonomics

This enjoyable if uneven anthology documentary manages to break even, with two strong segments making up for two weaker ones.

You’ve probably heard of anthology films before—full-length features that consist of three or more short movies, usually based around a common theme or setting. Think movies like New York Stories, Paris, I Love You and Four Rooms. (Or, if you’re a horror fan, you can go with Creepshow, Tales from the Darkside and Trilogy of Terror.) Well, Freakonomics may be cinema’s first anthology documentary.

Based on the best-selling book by economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, the movie consists of four short nonfiction stories helmed by five leading documentary filmmakers, as well as a series of informative interstitial segments starring the authors made by executive producer (and director of the videogame doc The King of Kong) Seth Gordon. On both the page and screen, the overarching point of Freakonomics is that complex social problems and the mysteries of human behavior can be explored (and possibly even explained) by examining different kinds of data in search of recurring patterns. In the authors’ view, being aware of those patterns—as well as understanding such basic concepts as incentives and cause-and-effect—can help individuals make better life choices.

While it earns points for novelty value, Freakonomics ultimately shares the same strengths and weaknesses of all films that adopt the anthology format. On the one hand, it’s always fun to see the range of narratives and filmmaking styles on display in these kinds of omnibus features. At the same time, though, the quality of the individual movies can vary significantly. You can consider your time well-spent if you come away from an anthology film having broken even, with at least half of the shorts being quality work. And that’s the case with Freakonomics, which features two very good documentaries alongside two less-than-stellar efforts.

Let’s start with the movie’s last and best installment, “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?”, directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, the team behind the terrific 2006 documentary Jesus Camp. To examine the impact incentives have on our behavior, the filmmakers followed an experiment Levitt recently conducted at a public high school in Chicago that awarded a $50 monthly prize to a select group of ninth-grade students who were able to raise their grades above a C average and keep them there. From the sizeable pool of participants, Ewing and Grady focus their camera on two kids, a slacker skater who admits that he’d rather be the class clown than the class genius and an ebullient entertainer-in-the-making who struggles to channel his prodigious energy into his studies. The filmmakers couldn’t have asked for a better pair of subjects, both in terms of the boys’ charisma as well as their wildly different reactions to the experiment. Smart, witty and very entertaining, the film tells a great story while also giving viewers the opportunity to see some of the theories behind Freakonomics in action.

Running a close second to Grady and Ewing’s chapter is Alex Gibney’s “Pure Corruption,” which finds the Oscar-winning director of Taxi to the Dark Side and Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room once again exploring high-level cover-ups and financial misdeeds. This time, though, the setting is Japan’s venerated sumo-wrestling industry, which has recently been wracked by allegations of cheating and physical abuse. An extrapolation of a relatively minor part of the book (Levitt and Dubner spent only six pages on this topic, while Gibney’s film runs almost 30 minutes, making it the longest of the four movies), “Pure Corruption” provides a nuanced and detailed look inside the culture of sumo as well as the place it holds in Japanese society.

Nuance and detail are two of the things missing from Eugene Jarecki’s “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” a disappointing adaptation of the book’s most provocative chapter. Looking for a way to explain the falling crime rate during the 1990s, Levitt and Dubner examined the most commonly cited factors—including stricter jail sentences, more policing and stronger gun laws—and determined that the data showed they weren’t as impactful as previously assumed. Instead, the authors hypothesized that the reason fewer crimes were committed in the ’90s may have been due to the fact that a whole generation of potential criminals was never born, thanks to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade ruling legalizing abortion. It’s a fascinating—and obviously emotionally and politically charged—theory, but Jarecki declines to give it the full weight it deserves. Instead, using whimsical animation, he produces a short Cliff Notes-like version of the material that only skirts the surface of the authors’ thesis and goes out of its way to avoid being seen as taking a stance on the issue of abortion.

Last and certainly least is “A Roshanda by Any Other Name,” a glib, lazy effort directed by the increasingly inessential documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock. Told in the same jaunty tone that made Super Size Me such a surprise (and Where in the World Is Osama Bin Laden? such a chore), the film ponders whether the names parents give their babies have any impact on their future success—or failure—in life. Unlike some of his fellow directors, who build on the material they’ve been given, Spurlock treats the book as a shooting script, dramatizing the same stories and speaking with the same experts mentioned on the page. The best that can be said about “Roshanda” is that it’s the first film in this particular anthology, so once you get past it, Freakonomics improves immeasurably.