When economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner teamed up to write the 2005 book Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, the results were astonishing--a New York Times bestseller, the book sold over four million copies and became a genuine intellectual phenomenon. But the book--an exploration of economic theory in unexpected spheres--wouldn't seem a likely candidate for film adaptation. The makers of Freakonomics hit on an ingenious approach: get six filmmakers to create an omnibus documentary, each segment tackling a different section of the book. The results are, for the most part, exhilaratingly smart and engaging, a sly and entertaining look at some very heavy stuff.
Seth Gordon (director of the wonderful King of Kong) helms the picture's introduction and transitional segments, and he jumps right in (like a cannonball into a swimming pool) with a captivating segment on the comparative sale prices of the homes that real estate agents sell for others, and the prices they get when they sell their own. The sequence grabs us because the material is inherently interesting, and entertainingly presented, but also because Levitt and Dubner are so good together in their two-man interviews; they've got the rhythm and compatibility of a good comedy team. Most importantly, the section sets up the film's overriding theme: "If you can figure out what people's incentives are, you've got a good chance of figuring out how they're gonna behave."
The next segment, "A Roshanda By Any Other Name," is directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), and deals in some intriguing ideas regarding causality in parenthood--specifically in relation to ethnic naming patterns. How does something as basic (and, for most, uncontrollable) as our very name affect our lot in life? Spurlock talks to scholars and average folks on the street (too many of them, frankly), and while the section is agreeable enough, it feels like quite an intellectual downshift compared to what precedes and follows it. Spurlock's visual playbook and narration are awfully cutesy, and he also makes the key mistake of not using the authors in his piece (he's the only director who leaves them out). As usual, even off-camera, Spurlock is the main character in his work.
Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States f Money) directs the next segment, "Pure Corruption," which examines the strange outbreak of "match rigging" in the world of sumo wrestling. But the sequence is about more than that--Gibney is interested in the disparity between the surface and the truth, widening the scope of the story to include the recent financial meltdown, another instance of an institution's survival depending upon absolute deception. The sequence is complex, smart, and all but hypnotic; it draws unexpected connections and thought-provoking conclusions.
"It's Not Always a Wonderful Life" is directed by Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), who works here in a knockout style that merges minimalist animation with new footage. He takes a look at the 1990s crime drop, first debunking the most oft-repeated causes of that decline, then using the contrary example of the rise in Romanian crime to arrive at a shocking but absolutely logical conclusion. It's a tremendous thesis (one that prompted understandable controversy in the book--I'll not disclose it here, since the reveal in the film is one of its finest moments), brilliantly presented.
The final section, "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?", is helmed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) and delves into the issue of incentives by documenting a University of Chicago "economic experiment" in which 900 Chicago Heights freshmen were offered the chance to win $50 per month for bringing their grades up to a C level. The filmmakers find two somewhat engaging subjects and track their progress; this section is a touch slight, but it has an undeniably entertaining component and some potent ideas percolating beneath its surface.
Of course, as with any multi-part, multiple-filmmaker project, there is a tendency to focus on whose segment you liked most and least (for the record: the Jarecki, and the Spurlock). The film is, as these projects often are, somewhat uneven. But it is consistently, enjoyably fascinating--as a film both about Levitt and Dubner, and about their ideas. Most of the segments highlight the authors to some degree; more than that, most have, at some point or another, Levitt speaking the movie's refrain: "I looked at the data..." By the end, it's almost like a laugh line, a running joke. You think one thing, you have one perception, but then you look at the data, and your whole position changes. Most movies don't do a lot of perception-shifting. Freakonomics, whatever its flaws, is brainy, fast-paced, intelligent fun.