Mark Reviews Movies

FREAKONOMICS

3 Stars (out of 4)

Directors: Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for elements of violence, sexuality/nudity, drugs, and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:33

Release Date: 10/1/10 (limited)


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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 30, 2010

While hunting down some information on the team behind the book upon which Freakonomics is based, I came across the introduction in which the "rogue economist" is described as looking at the world through the eyes of a "documentary filmmaker." Coincidentally enough, here is a documentary based on some of the chapters of the best-seller from economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner.

I have not read the book (I suspect that the film's release, as an example of basic economics, will spike its sales), which probably puts me at an advantage, being unfamiliar with Levitt's overarching hypothesis of the way the world works. It's fascinating stuff, cobbled out of five documentarians' representations of Levitt's studies, glued together with introductory and transitional interviews with Levitt (who dominates most of the time) and Dubner by Seth Gordon.

First up is Morgan Spurlock's "A Roshanda by Any Other Name," which examines whether or not a person's name determines one's fate. Spurlock incorporates street-side interviews with folks about the origin of their name, how it has affected them, and how they think a name determines one's fate. It is straightforward material that Spurlock's interviews and dramatizations of the lives of hypothetical and real instances of people with unique names (including "Temptress" (an accidental spelling) and variations of "Unique," such as "Uneek" and "Uneeqkee") keeps involving.

It's a better piece when examining the larger social implications. There's an entire, profitable market for baby names, from books to websites to baby name experts. As it turns out, based on an experimental job hunt using the same résumé, one with a traditionally "white" name and the other with an "African-American-sounding" name, there are still some issues with race in the private sector.

Next is "Pure Corruption," directed by Alex Gibney, which looks at cheating in professional Sumo in Japan.  The way it has been uncovered—apart from statements from a pair of whistleblowers who die the same night, at the same hospital, from the same mysterious ailment—is in the numbers. It's relatively easy to uncover, if one knows where to look. During a tournament, any wrestler with eight wins automatically enters into the final tier. So in matches between a fighter with eight wins (and six losses) and another with seven wins (and an equal number of losses), the probability that the participant with the lower record will win goes up much higher than the norm.

Gibney's argument is oddly unrelated despite the sport's ties to religious tradition, a sense of honor toward the lower-ranked fighters (whose win in that single round could be the difference between being paid enough to live on and not), and the prevalence of the appearance of truth over reality (Police have a high percentage of completed cases, but only because they choose those with a higher likelihood of being solved). Instead, Gibney takes the easy route and ties the corruption of yaocho (match fixing) with the behavior on Wall Street that led to the global economic crisis of 2008.

While the first two segments are a mixed bag, the third one about cause and effect (introduced by Levitt explaining how ice cream was once blamed for polio) is easily the film's best. "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life" by Eugene Jarecki features Levitt's most controversial hypothesis. At the end of the 1980s, the crime rate in the United States had risen to unbelievable proportions, and fear about the oncoming decade was at a high point. Then the crime rate began to drop.

The short mixes media—news footage, archival footage of Levitt at the time—and is anchored with animated charts and graphs that offer the believed causes and break them down into exactly how successful they actually were. Rudy Giuliani's crack down on crime in New York had nothing to do with it. Gun control laws were only a small percentage, and the hiring of more police across the nation was higher. Levitt's answer for the primary reason why crime dropped in the 1990s is scandalous and sensible.

The final segment by directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady follows University of Chicago economics students under the guidance of Levitt who ask the titular question: "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" Set at Bloom Trail High School (a public school that is only a few minutes away from my hometown), the study offers 50 dollars a month to students who manage to earn nothing less than a C on their report card.

Like the other short subjects of Freakonomics, the last one is absorbing, even though it cannot and should not be expected to give us the answers we want (or any at all, for that matter). The point of the field of Levitt and Dubner's study is to ask the right questions.

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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