Freakonomics Not Exactly the Sum of Its Parts


A quartet of uneven TV pilots posing as a full-length documentary, Seth Gordon’s anthology Freakonomics pulls case studies from Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s bestselling book of pop-math and hands them over to famous doc filmmakers to make their own. Gordon (King of Kong) knits together the resulting shorts with interludes that attempt to build a coherent thought-narrative out of clever animation and talking-head interviews with the authors, journalist and freakonomist respectively.

Though that overarching throughline never really materializes, one of the pleasures of Freakonomics is seeing how very different filmmakers—Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), and the team of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp)—approach basically identical material. The 20-minute shorts range in style from traditional fly-on-the-wall narrative to a kind of hyperactive PowerPoint presentation.

Spurlock’s opening mini-doc, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name,” is an extended Tonight Show riff on baby naming. Interviewing cannily chosen vox pops on the street, Spurlock digs into the cultural baggage of vanilla white-baby names and concatenated black-baby names, prized for being unique. (Indeed, a study by researcher Roland Fryer, a major player in this section, revealed that California parents named their children 220 differently spelled versions of “Unique” in the past four decades.) “Roshanda” is very funny and almost entirely revelation-free, offering the unshocking insight that destiny is determined by parenting, environment, and class—not your name.

“Pure Corruption,” Gibney’s meditation on sumo wrestling and corporate malfeasance, is the most artful and thoughtful of the four segments. Unwrapping a series of scandals revolving around thrown matches and dead competitors in the ancient Japanese ritual, Gibney elegantly ties together Shinto, AIG, and Bernie Madoff. But the emotional weight of Gibney’s film, as it were, rests with the enormous, vulnerable sumos, always photographed alongside their coaches, who are ominously called “stablemasters” and are as grim and craggy as background characters in a Yoshihiro Tatsumi manga.
The least engaging of the four is Jarecki’s “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” a facile look at Dubner and Levitt’s claim that the ’90s drop in violent crime is attributable to the delayed effects of Roe v. Wade. Jarecki, through narrator Melvin Van Peebles, dismisses dissent aimed at this most controversial argument in the book, but even ardent supporters of abortion rights (or of pop economists) won’t find themselves swayed by correlative data in a documentary devoted to separating causation from coincidence.

The final section, Grady and Ewing’s “Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?,” skirts issues of pseudo-science by dropping us in the middle of a study conducted by Levitt and a team of grad students, examining how kids respond to being offered $50 a month for decent grades. Demonstrating the benefits of a patient, traditional documentary approach, “Can You Bribe” gets remarkable access to skate punk Kevin Muncy, an ingenious kid who can’t be bothered with school but who builds a tattoo gun out of an electric toothbrush and a guitar string, and Urail King, an extrovert whose response to seeing the inside of a Hummer limo is so unrestrained you think steam might come out of his ears.

The simple question of whether these two underachievers will collect their 50 bucks gives Freakonomics a welcome jolt of narrative energy. And while the study isn’t exactly a success, watching these economists sort-of-fail tells viewers more about real research—the messy and difficult process by which thinkers in all disciplines make sense of the world—than anything that precedes it. You can get ur Freakon; I’ll take Econ.