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Reviewed by Bob Westal
f all the intellectual pursuits that make some claim to objectivity, none is so complicated and elusive as economics. The "dismal science" strikes me as accurately named because I wonder if it isn't a doomed project. You're studying the actions of millions of people at once, all making their own buying and selling decisions, all for their own very personal and individual reasons. It's a task that seems somewhere between massively daunting and downright freaking impossible.
Indeed, writer Isaac Asimov cast the equivalent of economics, something he called psycho-history, in science fiction terms in The Foundation Trilogy. The books inspired future Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman into the econ game, but I doubt he'd claim his work is anywhere near as precise as the science dreamed up by Asimov's fictional Hari Seldon. Krugman, you see, is a liberal economist, and a famed political pundit, who agrees on very little with, say, the late conservative economist and fellow Nobel Prize winner Milton Friedman.
Politically active religious fanatics or free market fundamentalist global warming deniers notwithstanding, there's no such thing as a politically liberal or conservative biologist or physicist, but we break down economists that way because their work is still a matter of opinion. Like medicine before it became truly useful with the discovery of antibiotics and other 20th century advances, economics is definitely a worthwhile subject for study. It's just possible that it might be centuries before anyone actually benefits very much from it. Or, maybe I'm just prejudiced against anything that highly mathematical because I struggled to get a C in 9th grade algebra.
Economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner pop-econ book, Freakonomics, hasbecame hugely popular with its quirky and often counterintuitive attempts to take a truly objective look at various aspects of modern life. The film version is not an adaptation of the book in the usual sense, but a collection of four short spin-off documentaries by a dream-team of documentarians looking at four different social conundrums, combined with linking material starring the authors and directed by Seth Gordon of the outstanding "The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters."
The most prominent linking theme between all of them: incentives. Much as Deep Throat told Woodward and Bernstein to "follow the money" to crack the Watergate scandal, it seems that following the incentives that actually motivate people will get us all much closer to the truth in all kinds of matters. Makes sense to me.
The film opens casually with director Seth Gordon introducing us to the likably matter-of-fact team of Levitt and Dubner as a brief segment explains the Freakomically counterintuitive reality that, despite working strictly on commission, real estate agents may not be motivated to get their clients the absolute highest selling price. That's followed by a discussion of the importance of parenting and how the reason that the kids whose parents take them to museums, concerts, and libraries tend to do better in school is not because of the museum, concerts, and libraries themselves, but because they have the kind of educated parents who think it will help to take them to those places.
From there, we finally arrive at the first and most purely entertaining segment, "A Roshanda by An Other Name," in which Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") looks into the matter of the often exotic sounding names popular in the African-American community and what impact having certain kind of monikers can have on a child's life. It's all done with a jovial, low-key sense of humor and also looks at corresponding trends among names for Caucasian babies. In the end, we find out that, while names that are perceived as belonging only to black people might lead to provable forms of discrimination, a child's overall upbringing is a lot more important than whether they are named "Tyrone" or "Morgan" or perhaps, as in one horrific case, "Winner" or "Loser."
The next segment by Seth Gordon presents some fairly compelling evidence that teachers are cheating on standardized tests, but from there we move on to more heavy duty form of corruption that, alas, is not as interesting as it sounds. Alex Gibney, justly acclaimed Oscar-winning director of the investigative "Taxi to the Dark Side," "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room," and the less successful "Casino Jack and the United State of Money," spent several years in Japan, and so he takes on the seamy side of sumo in "Pure Corruption."
Gibney's segment methodically explores the motivations that would lead athletes to fix games – and engage in perhaps far worse actions – in a sport supposedly driven by a strict code of honor. Gibney can't resist trying to tie in the sporting malfeasance and possible murder with the huge theft orchestrated by Wall Street. Clearly, this is a running theme in Gibney's work, including his upcoming documentary about former New York governor Elliot Spitzer, but the wrestling-high finance connection may be a stretch. Gibney invests his segment with his usual visual and creative fair, but it's a fairly dry time regardless.
The next segment is taken on by Eugene Jarecki of "Why We Fight" and "The Trials of Henry Kissinger." Unafraid of controversy, he takes on a hornet's nest of a piece drawing a fascinating connection between two distinct issues in American life: crime rates and abortion. It's without a doubt the most provocative segment, though it's important to realize that its conclusions aren't really advocating anything, just stating a really fascinating possible unintended consequence of legal abortion. The one possible misstep here is the use of independent African-American filmmaking pioneer, actor-director Melvin Van Peebles ("Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song"), as the narrator. There are certainly cultural resonances with the filmmaker who catalyzed the blaxploitation phenomenon of the 1970s, but Van Peebles' voice is faltering at times and it threatens to become more of a distraction than an enhancement.
The final segments deal directly with incentives and how they impact children. With the help of some amusing animation, economist Levitt explains how he attempted to use M&Ms as bribes to motivate his preschool daughter to us the potty, only to find her using her flexible young urinary tract to extract more and more chocolate candy. That dovetails nicely with the final segment, by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing of "Jesus Camp," which explores the highly controversial educational tactic of using money and other materialistic lures to motivate better performances from 9th grade students. Using two seemingly bright but academically unmotivated boys as examples, the results are interesting but frankly inconclusive.
As with all omnibus-style films "Freakonomics" – which is largely the brainchild of producer Chad Troutwine of 2007's Parisian-themed anthology film, "Paris Je T'Aime" – benefits from the fact that, if you're not crazy about a particular segment, a new segment will be coming along shortly. Moreover, the collective talents of the directors and the often intriguing results of the investigations guarantee that it's a lively enough intellectual ride.
It's probably inevitable that some segments work better than others, and it's fortunate that executive producer and co-director Seth Gordon does a nice job of tying the whole thing together. Considering that it's about the highly complicated subject of economics, "Freakonomics" is easy to follow. Unfortunately, also like the science of economics, it's also easy to wonder if it really actually adds up to much of anything.