Freakonomics Review: Needs more Rick James

Senior Editor
10.01.10 20 Comments

One of the new movies lost in the bigger-hyped major releases like Let Me In and the Social Network this weekend is Freakonomics, the documentary adaptation of the wildly popular (wild, I say!) book of the same name, opening in 16 cities and already available for rent on iTunes.  Usually when a non-fiction best seller gets popular enough that someone tries to make a movie out of it, they turn the author’s research and unique storytelling into a generic Hollywood movie that just happens to be kinda sorta true like The Blind Side, or Fast Food Nation.  And who remembers Fast Food Nation?  Not even Wilmer Valderrama’s parents.

Freakonomics takes the novel approach of turning the book into a pretty straightforward documentary, with vignettes directed by Morgan Spurlock (Fast Food Nation), Alex Gibney (Gonzo, Enron), Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp), and Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), all held together by introductions from the authors directed by Seth Gordon (King of Kong).  It’s sort of a documentary filmmaker supergroup, like Damn Yankees, but with less loincloths (depending on how Spurlock feels that day).  Each section promises to use an incentive-based way of thinking pioneered by “rogue economist” Steven Levitt (he’s been known to spit a bilious mixture of partially digested food when agitated and once gored a colleague with a calculator) to explain phenomena of the natural world.  Spurlock’s segment explores the effect of baby names on the child’s life, Gibney looks at corruption in the world of sumo wrestling, Eugene Jarecki’s portion deals with the link between legalized abortion and a drop in the crime rate, and Grady and Ewing try to find out whether ninth graders can be bribed into not acting like idiotic ninth graders.

The topic of names is one of my favorites, and while I can see people being turned off by Spurlock’s self-consciously cutesy style, his segment was mostly entertaining on the strength of his man-on-the-street interviews (which it looks like he managed to do without leaving Brooklyn).  And I envision people laughing, as I did, at narration like “And just like that, today’s high-end Ashley becomes tomorrow’s low-rent Trashley.”

Story of Burnsy’s life.

Gibney (whose Gonzo I once rated an A+) tackles the corruption in the world of sumo that everyone suspected but no one was able to prove until Levitt came along with his bag of maths.  The short version is that the wrestlers needed to win eight matches to move up in ranking, and in matches between wrestlers with an 8-6 record (who already qualified to move up), and wrestlers with a 7-7 record, the 7-7 wrestler won more often than could be justified by probability.  I would’ve been interested in hearing some of Levitt’s methodology in how he was able to “prove” something like that using only numbers, but Gibney, who has spent several years living in Japan, seems more interested in focusing on the Japanese dichotomy between the honne, a person or society’s true, hidden feelings, and  tatemae, the facade they put on in public.  It’d be an interesting subject for Gibney to tackle in a full feature, but it makes his short segment feel a bit confused and unsatisfying, like many of my sexual experiences.

Jarecki’s segment might be the strongest, driven by the fact that it covers probably the most interesting finding of the book: that the decline in crime in the 90s can be traced directly to the passage of Roe V. Wade in the 70s, and how Levitt and Dubner were able to explain this.  I probably would’ve called it “Bag It Up So Your Stupid Kid Doesn’t Rob Me in 15 Years, PS Giuliani is a Schmuck”, but I digress.

Ewing and Grady’s segment takes us to Chicago to find out if 9th graders can be bribed into getting better grades.  It’s strong on characters, introducing us to two 9th graders, a white, quintessential bonehead delinquent who tattoos himself in class and trades Adderall for cigarettes in the skate park, and a charismatic black kid who you’d think would be getting better grades based on how charming and articulate he is.  I could’ve watched an entire documentary on just these two.  But you know how I love teenage boys. Trouble is, the experiment in this segment ends on a mostly inconclusive note, leaving it feeling a little unsatisfying.  Hard to say whether that’s Ewing and Grady’s fault or God’s.

As a whole, Freakonomics doesn’t have the urgency of a documentary like, say, The Cove, or stay as consistently hilarious and engaging as Anvil (seriously, rent that today if you haven’t seen it).  It’s more of an oh-that’s-neat documentary than a you-absolutely-must-watch-this-right-now documentary, probably because it’s driven more by a scientific approach than by characters, which will never be as compelling.  Releasing it on iTunes was a smart choice, because while I wouldn’t tell you to rush out and see this in a theater, for nine bucks, it’s a great way to pass the time in an airport or on your lunch break or in the toilet while you pretend to be working.  And the way it’s broken into segments lends itself particularly well to being able to watch 10 minutes of it here, 20 minutes of it later.  “You can literally watch this on the sh*tter!” –Pete Hammond.

It’s not life changing, but it’s enjoyable.

Grade: B

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