A brisk and lively cinematic Cliff’s Notes of the 2005 nonfiction bestseller that made the lofty promise to reveal “the hidden side of everything,” Freakonomics assigns four segments of the book to an assortment of respected filmmakers, then ties them together with breezy interviews with authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.
Using the central idea that in order to understand human behavior one needs to focus on causality, Freakonomics casts a spirited net across four unrelated topics, each handled in a distinct cinematic style. In A Roshanda By Any Other Name, director Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) asks just how far the name your parents give you at birth determines your social and economic future. In Pure Corruption, Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) explores a scandal about possible cheating that swept through the privileged world of Japanese sumo wrestling.
Director Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) opts for animation to illustrate It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life, which tries to find a reason for the sharp decline of crime within the United States in the 1990s. The eventual answer – the legalization of abortion in 1973, which resulted in a decrease of unwanted births – is intriguing but begs a deeper, more balanced exploration. In the film’s best segment, Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?, co-directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) train their cameras on a University of Chicago experiment in which high school students with shaky report cards were offered $50 for every grade of C and above, as well as an opportunity to enter a quarterly lottery for $500. The segment focuses primarily on two boys in the program and ends with contradictory results.
Tying everything together are interview segments with Levitt and Dubner, directed by Seth Gordon (King of Kong), who ramble on about everything from real estate agents to potty training. Freakonomics packs a multitude of subjects into a brief running time, and the tone changes from segment to segment (Spurlock’s light, humorous touch is the complete opposite of Gibney’s investigative approach). But despite being stitched together from so many disparate parts, Freakonomics is, much like the book that spawned it, a breezy entertainment that leaves you with a lot to think about.
Directors: Alex Gibney, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, Seth Gordon, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock. Based on the book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner.
Producers: Dan O’Meara, Chris Romano, Chad Troutwine.
A Magnolia Pictures release. Running time: 93 minutes. Brief vulgar language. Opens Friday Oct. 15 in Miami-Dade only at Coral Gables Art Cinema.