The tagline for “Freakonomics,” adapted from the best-selling book of the same name, is “Six Rogue Filmmakers Explore the Hidden Side of Everything.” The film is split into chapters, each done by a different director, but each segment feels like a separate film rather than part of a unified whole.
At the Michigan
The film begins with the book’s authors, economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, giving a side-by-side interview. Their friendly banter, while sometimes amusing, ultimately doesn’t add much to the movie. However, they are both captivating people, especially Levitt, and their presence is the only consistency present in the film.
The first of four chapters, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name,” directed and narrated by Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”), analyzes the effect one’s name has on success. Chiefly, it examines the divide between names white parents give their children and the names black parents give theirs. Does a girl named Sarah have an advantage over a girl named Yolanda? The episode contains some amusing anecdotes (the divergent, unexpected paths of two brothers named Winner and Loser, among others) and is imaginatively done with man-on-the-street interviews and creative animation, but ultimately carries little emotional weight.
It’s clear from the opening sequence that the filmmakers are trying to make “Freakonomics” accessible. The film is rife with whimsical animation and features a playful score during the interview portions. The movie does succeed in lucidly explaining its points, and entertains you along the way.
“Pure Corruption,” an analysis of cheating in traditional Japanese Sumo Wrestling by director Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side”) is the most visually adventurous segment, but it’s cluttered and fails to effectively convey its meaning. At one point it attempts to compare the fixing of Sumo matches to Bernie Madoff’s giant Ponzi scheme, which ends up feeling jumbled and not very relevant. And, like the other chapters, it gets too caught up in its own story and loses its connection to the rest of the film; it digresses into a critique of the Japanese police system and a commentary on the cultural differences between Japan and the United States.
Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”) directs the episode “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” which analyzes the causes of the decreased crime rate in the early ’90s. Levitt’s controversial but statistically supported theory is that the legalization of abortion led to the decline. This segment, which is exceptionally animated, fits into the theme of the film better than the others.
The final chapter, “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?,” directed by Heidi Ewing (“Jesus Camp”), is about a high school that begins paying its students for good grades. It follows two freshmen, one of whom succeeds in raising his grades while the other’s grades decline. The film deftly creates empathy for the two kids, and it almost seems like a truncated full-length documentary, but this short version leaves the audience feeling short-changed.
The chapters are connected by awkward transitions featuring Levitt and Dubner, which don’t unify the segments very well. And the ending, like the rest of the movie, doesn’t make the film’s message clear. It seems to be wrapping up some large idea, but it’s not clear what the idea is. “Freakonomics” is really a film by six rogue filmmakers who turned out to not be making the same film.