FREAKONOMICS: THE MOVIE (Dirs. Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, and Morgan Spurlock, 2010)

Journalist Stephen Dubner and economist Steven Levitt’s best selling book seems a ripe one to adapt into film, but with its simplified statements, glitzy graphics, and overall glib tone this creaking adaptation more resembles a collection of TV news magazine segments than a hard hitting documentary.

At the beginning Dubner says: “If there’s only one element that I say is there in almost everything we do, is the idea that incentives matter and if you can figure out what people’s incentives are you have a good chance in guessing how they are going to behave.”

With 6 different directors, all noted documentarians, the authors attempt to explore that thesis through contained pieces entitled: “A Roshanda By Any Other Name”, “Pure Corruption”, “It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life”, and “Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed To Succeed?”

Seth Gordon (THE KING OF KONG) ably and amusingly links the film together with transitional segments narrated by Dubner and Levitt.

Morgan Spurlock (SUPERSIZE ME) handles the first segment (“A Roshanda…”) about whether parents’ name choices affect their path in life, and while there some good points made, the jokey nature, unnecessary employment of actors, and people on the street sound bites overshadow any actual insights. Infomercial type animation doesn’t help either.

Alex Gibney’s (TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE) lengthy contribution (“Pure Corruption”) concentrating on cheating in the world of Sumo wrestling fares much better. With well edited footage, insightful interviews, and stirring statistical info, “Pure Corruption” makes a fascinating case study.

However when journalist Yorimasa Takeda in the segment opines: “I read Freakonomics and thought it gave numerical evidence of something very difficult to prove” he could be stating the problem with the entire project.

Eugene Jarecki (CAPTURING THE FRIEDMANS, ALL GOOD THINGS) takes on what is posited as one of the most crucial sequences of the film – “It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life” – which deals with data that ostensibly indicates that the legalization of abortion in the 1970s is one of the primary reasons that crime rates were down in the 1990s.

Jarecki’s segment makes a convincing argument, but its flashy use of cartoon framed footage just highlights that the bottom line theory just isn’t that compelling.

Likewise for Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s (JESUS CAMP) concluding segment “Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed To Succeed”. It looks very interesting at first – the experiment of rewarding students with money for higher grades, but it doesn’t give us results that mean anything. Some kids are pushed to work harder, some aren’t. So what?

I haven’t read the book yet, but I suspect its really where to go for the detailed and engaging lowdown on this material. As a film FREAKONOMICS is an mostly unappealing stylistic mishmash with precious little educational takeaway.

Bonus Features: Additional interviews with Levitt and Dubner, directors’ commentary, producers’ commentary, and HDNet: A Look at FREAKONOMICS

More later…

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