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Movie review: 'Freakonomics'

Filmmakers tackle Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's inventive fact-finding book with a documentary that too often sounds like an infomercial.

October 01, 2010|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic

First came the bestselling book, then the sequel, and now comes "Freakonomics" the movie, a kind of victory lap that both celebrates that success and demonstrates why the work of economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner has become an international phenomenon.

With the original book selling more than 4 million copies and getting translated into 35 languages, not to mention spending two-plus years on the New York Times bestseller list, Dubner and Levitt's penchant for looking at economic data in adventurous ways and coming up with counterintuitive results has clearly touched a cultural nerve.

It was producer Chad Troutwine who had the idea of turning over "Freakonomics" to several filmmakers and having each one tackle a different phenomenon that is either in the book or connected to it.

Troutwine certainly made an interesting selection, including Alex Gibney, the team of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Seth Gordon, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock. The filmmakers work more or less in their own particular style, and, as with all anthology films, some segments turn out better than others.

Very much getting the short end of the stick is Gordon ("King of Kong"), who ended up filming the doc's introduction and assorted transitional material. Some interesting thoughts do get passed along, like the notion that what helps babies is not reading parenting books but being the kind of parent who wants to read to them. But overall, these brief sections, which feature both authors on camera, come off more like self-congratulatory infomercials than they should.

The sections that work best are, not surprising, the ones in which the information passed on is unexpected. That does not include Spurlock's "A Roshanda by Any Other Name," which concludes that what matters to a child's success in life is not what he or she is named but what the family's socio-economic status is. Not exactly front-page news.

Much more counterintuitive is Jarecki's "It's (Not Always) a Wonderful Life." The subject here is a favorite of pundits: speculating on what caused the much-written-about drop in crime rates in the 1990s.

Using animation and clips from the James Stewart classic, Jarecki illustrates Dubner's theory by first bringing up and dismissing the most conventional theories about the source of the decline: innovative policing techniques, harsher prison sentences, changes in the habits of drug users.

Instead, the economist advances the notion that it was the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion and thereby reduced the number of babies with two strong indicators of a criminal future — being poor and being raised by a single parent — which caused crime to drop. Now that's freakonomics in a nutshell.

The one segment of the film that is not in the book though it is based on Levitt's research is Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's "Can a 9th Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" The answer is "sometimes," as the co-directors, using the kind of empathy with kids that served them well in films like "Jesus Camp" and "The Boys of Baraka," introduce both a boy who wouldn't trade his social life for studying no matter what monetary reward was offered as well as a classmate who discovered that "learning is like a virus" that can take a strong hold of you if you give it a chance.

In some ways, the best combination of unexpected information and interesting subject matter is Gibney's "Pure Corruption," in which the director of the Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side," himself a former resident of Japan, looks into the seamy side of that country's sumo wrestling subculture.

Though sumo's connection to the Shinto religion makes it an unlikely center for corruption, one of the principles of freakonomics is that when the incentives are high enough, people will cheat. As it turns out, in sumo, winning the eighth bout of a 15-bout season has enormous financial benefits. So in matches between someone who needs that eighth win and someone who already has it, the needier wrestler wins a whopping 75% of the time. Game, set, match to freakonomics.

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