Directors: Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Seth Gordon, Eugene Jarecki, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing
Based on the book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
Ever since Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine proved that documentaries could not only be provocative and entertaining but bring in the Box Office bucks, we’ve enjoyed a torrent of similar efforts to make “factual” film as funny, narrative-driven and cinema-worthy as possible. Freakonomics, based on the bestselling book by University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, takes the big screen documentary to its limits, comprising of an anthology of sorts from some of the most recognisable documentary makers today… with pictures, and Monty Python-inspired animation, too!
Essentially, Freakonomics is four stylistically diverse shorts, divided by animated interviews with Levitt and Dubner courtesy of Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A fistful of Dollars). First up is Morgan Spurlock’s fluffy starter, which delves into the importance of a name. “Does a name decide a child’s fate?” seems to be the question here, but while this chapter hit upon some darker statistics (that an unemployed male with a common African American first name will take longer to get a job than a competitor with a recognisably white first name) Spurlock’s primary goal here is to entertain. It’s a strikingly presented portion, and the scene in a strip club where the dancers’ assets are concealed behind CGI renders of their trailer trash monikers is particularly inventive.
Alex Gibney’s (Taxi to the Dark Side) more conventional effort on corruption in the world of sumo wrestling – and, symbiotically, the disturbing revelations behind Japan’s high rate of solved crimes – has far more meat to it, but it’s 15 minutes too long and doesn’t quite pull its points together for a satisfying conclusion. Eugene Jarecki’s (Why We Fight) controversial segment examines the factors behind America’s drop in crime over the past few decades via quirky animations. The chapter, in which it’s argued that had legalised abortion had more to do with diminishing crime than increased police presence or harsher prison sentences, is both horrific and sickeningly logical. It’s also essential viewing.
An optimistic final segment, from Jesus Camp’s Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, takes the movie’s overlying theme of encouraging human behaviour through incentives and applies it to a group of underachieving students. Will a $50 a month reward be enough of an incentive to transform straight D and E grades into straight Cs? The results aren’t exactly surprising, but the positive (and hopefully long-lasting) impact that the exercise has on one particularly bright underachiever is genuinely heart warming.
Levitt and Dubner’s book has been criticised for its sensationalist approach to economics, and prior detractors will likely find further aggravation with this movie. Steven D. Levitt’s prevailing philosophy that all of life’s questions can be solved with economics is on occasion stretched beyond plausibility; quite ironically, the DVD’s half-hour interview with Levitt and Dubner is far more purposeful and direct in its approach than the movie it supplements.
There’s no escaping that, being it an anthology of mini-docs, Freakonomics suffers from a lack of direction. Each segment is fascinating in its own right, but the movie is never as cohesive as it needs to be. Several of the chapters, Grady and Ewing’s in particular, would make for interesting feature length films; sadly, Freakonomics’ format never allows for deeper analysis.
Conversely, this eclecticism could be seen as Freakonomics’ strength. Taken purely as food for thought it’s extremely entertaining, frequently challenging, and will provide intellectual fuel for hours of post-viewing banter. And ultimately isn’t that what these films are all about?
Extras: An extremely interesting interview with Levitt and Dubner and 2 commentaries: one from producers Chris Romano, Dan O’Meara and Chad Troutwine; another from the various directors. Plus a trailer.
Freakonomics was released in the UK on the 3rd of January by Optimum Home Entertainment.