Like the 2005 bestseller that inspired it, the movie version of Freakonomics is fleet and accessible, an enjoyably light and lively pop artifact aimed at bringing some unusual economic theories to the masses. But unlike the book—by “rogue economist” Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner—the film is also a mishmash of poorly synched visions. An intro and interstitials scripted and directed by The King Of Kong director Seth Gordon tie together four sub-sections helmed by five all-star documentarians. Unfortunately, Gordon’s brief linking segments, which feature Levitt and Dubner personally explaining the core of Levitt’s explorations, provide the film’s most compelling content. They suggest an intriguing thesis for the film, which the segments then largely fail to bear out.
Much of the material here will be familiar to people who’ve read Freakonomics. Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) directs a strident segment on the lack of correlation between people’s names and their success in life. Alex Gibney (Taxi To The Dark Side) presents an arty section on cheating in sumo wrestling. Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) uses a variety of animation styles to skim across Levitt’s most controversial finding, linking legalized abortion with lowered crime rates. And Jesus Camp and The Boys Of Baraka partners Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady work together on a frustratingly shallow look at an experiment in bribing 9th graders into getting better grades. According to the interstitials, Levitt’s theories are all about explaining people’s behavior by examining the incentives in a given situation, but the segments rarely touch back on that idea. And while the interior segments’ varying visual and tonal approaches keep the material fresh, they also assemble into an unfocused film that largely fails to capture Levitt and Dubner’s voices.
More damningly, Freakonomics often fails to capture their research and analysis, so it makes broad, sometimes untenable assertions as a result. Spurlock’s section is particularly patronizing in the way it uses man-on-the-street interviews, ridiculously dramatized anecdotes, and snide comic digs to casually imply that black people are universally impoverished, questionable parents who all name their kids Shaniqua. And even with a less dubious approach, it would still be overlong, repetitive, and bafflingly dedicated to refuting a claim no one made in the first place—that a well-picked name can ensure a child “won’t become a screw-up.” Gibney’s deep, satisfying section reports on Japanese culture and the cheating phenomenon at length, though it covers the book’s research so quickly, it barely feels related to Levitt and Dubner. Jarecki’s lays down the “abortion equals less crime” theory with a lot of winning flash, but no new substance. And Ewing and Grady follow two students through the bribery experiment without ever drawing conclusions about why it works for one and not the other—or even asking the obvious questions. Meanwhile, Gordon’s personal, lively, funny link segments hint frustratingly at a Levitt-and-Dubner-focused film that might have been. In fact, while each section has its stylistic strengths, particularly in the sprightly Errol Morris tone and the range of the subject matter, Freakonomics the movie comes across as a shallow teaser for five different, longer, better-conceived docs. Or, really, for one book that already did the job better.