Freakonomics (2010) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Freakonomics (2010)

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Danny INDIFFERENTWhy do I write movie reviews in my spare time? There's obviously no financial compensation, as you may notice the lack of advertisements peppering this website, and the opportunity cost for writing three articles a week is immense: I lose sleep, I lose time with my girlfriend, and I'm fairly sure that over 90% of the traffic for this site comes from people searching for information about Three Men and a Baby. I don't get that.

But my personal incentives come from a drive and instinct to create something personal and, hopefully, readable. Incentives is what the documentary film version of Freaknomics is all about. In case you forget it, the film is happy to repeat this fact a dozen or so more times.

I usually avoid reading books-- I practically grew up in a library and got my fill pretty quickly-- but I will admit Freakonomics grabbed my interest. Using some economic theory and statistical analysis, the non-fiction bestseller casually drew up a few interesting questions for its readers to ponder: what prevented a large scale crime wave in the 90's? Does your name determine your future? Can students be bribed to succeed in school? Is cheating in sumo wrestling emblematic of why people cheat in other fields?

Most of these questions have an offbeat quirkiness to their answers, which is what gave Freakonomics, the book, such a silly charm. It's a breezy read that plays a lot like the usually cheesy internet lists that you'll read on Fark or Digg, only condensed into convenient book form for long airline trips.

Some of the animation looks good, but not much.

As a movie, though, Freakonomics has more than it's fair share of problems. Devised as an anthology, four different teams of directors were given different topics to do with as they pleased. Since each director has their own style, we end up with four different segments which, at best, can be classified as wildly uneven, and, at worst, dull as dirt.

Besides some interstitials with the authors of Freakonomics, which show that both men have a charm and repartee that the individual segments fail to capture, we get four segments told in a few different ways:

    • How does your name affect what you do in life? This segment is heavily reliant on on-the-street interviews, which quickly stretches things out. Morgan Spurlock (of Super Size Me fame) has some cool visualizations of the different statistics, and a couple of points (like people with stereotypically black names having 1/3rd theĀ  success in getting calls back from job applications than someone with a white name) are pretty salient. Spurlock's spurious narration and the on-the-street interviews just aren't that compelling.
    • Is there cheating in sumo wrestling? This segment is probably the most deadly in the film, as the makers here decided to eject the original author's light touches and go for the out and out true crime version, playing like something you'd see on Court TV at three in the afternoon. Worse, this one feels about just as long as such an episode. There's more than enough information to have been split up or at least treated with more levity than this dreary take.
    • What prevented the predicted violent crime wave of the 1990's? The most controversial part of the original Freakonomics book, this one supplies the theory that easy access to abortions prevented a generation of poor criminals from coming to be. I don't really have a problem with their findings as presented in the book, but here the documentarian has decided to heavily feature footage from It's A Wonderful Life, giving this section an almost a disturbing undertone. Instead of taking what the book had emphasized as a societal issue concerning poverty, becomes almost a treatise on the more sordid area of abortion: what if the world was a better place if you weren't born? And while a good existential crisis is fun every once and a while, here it really is kind of a disturbing tangent for a mostly light-hearted film.

  • Will kids do better in school if they're bribed to do so? This one is told without narration, but still filled with trickery. Following two kids, one white and one black and both failing the ninth grade, we follow them as they go through a year with the offer of getting some money for doing better. There's some silliness at the end where the kid that succeeds wins the big prize-- either rigged or fixed to look good for him by the filmmakers that's more than a tad disingenuous. The results aren't very surprising and the filmmaker's attempts to create a narrative never feel organic.

And that about does it. I hate saying this, because saying this is so damn easy to do, but, seriously, if even the idea of Freakonomics sounds interesting to you, go with the book instead.

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Posted by Danny

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