Tribeca Review: Freakonomics

By  · Published on May 4th, 2010

The much anticipated omnibus adaptation of the New York Times bestseller Freakonomics serves its basic function well. Four short documentaries – connected by transitional segments centered on interviews with authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner – illustrate the fundamentals of the writers’ belief in the application of statistics and other economic principles to areas of human behavior.

Accomplished documentary filmmakers Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock bring their unique styles to the short form. Gibney’s piece, which looks at corruption in sumo wrestling, boasts his characteristic, deceptively soothing narration, set against some dark images of modern Japan that are given neo-noir shadings. Spurlock’s, an exploration of the sociological significance of baby names, is deceptively upbeat, peppered with fairy-tale overtones. The minimalist animation of Jarecki’s segment draws out the unsettling nature of the hypothesis at its core, which links the drop in crime over the past decades to the legalization of Roe Vs. Wade.

There’s enough thought provoking material packed into each short to comprise a fascinating feature, and they’re linked by the pervading sense of each director being hamstrung by the form. The unifying threads are too abstract for the visceral cinematic medium. They require the further probing and delineation offered in the book; having the authors explicate their theories in on-camera interviews between the films renders the ideas more superficial than they ought to be. There’s no chance to get into anything in depth, because it’s on to the next broadly sketched out concept.

The merits of the theories themselves – Grady and Ewing explore the question of whether financial incentives could inspire high school students to study more – are, of course, easily debated and have been since the 2005 publication of the book. None of the filmmakers, however, seem especially interested in taking a stand on them. They’re more inclined to simply produce filmic illustrations, interpretations of the ideas that are more about the means and artistic components of the productions than the ideas themselves. With so many smart, opinionated talents assembled one would think producers Chris Romano, Dan O’Meara and Chad Troutwine might have solicited more of their personal spins on the themes presented. Simplifying and adding moving pictures and a soundtrack to the book, which is essentially how the movie plays, seems like a far less worthy venture.

Instead Freakonomics comes across as a thinly conjoined blend of snippets of potentially interesting films. It’s more like a highlight reel than a satisfying or even thought provoking cinematic experience. If the picture is meant to function as a supplement to the book, to intrigue viewers just enough to add to the sales total, it achieves its mission. I’ve added Levitt and Dubner’s work, unread by me, to my ever expanding list. If, however, the Freakonomics producers and directors intend to make a movie that stands apart from its source, they’ve taken a fundamentally, irrevocably wrong approach.