Disparate segments don’t add up
An attempt to turn the 2005 nonfiction bestseller into a high-energy docu-romp, “Freakonomics’’ is a misconceived botch. The concept sounds promising: Five documentary filmmakers, all stars of the art-house circuit, have been brought on board to each illustrate a chapter of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s ode to bizarre statistics and the unexpected social truths they imply.
Because the directors worked alone rather than collaborating, though, there’s no connective tissue other than brief interstitials and author interviews shot by Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong’’). Worse, there’s no consistency: The main segments — essentially stand-alone shorts — are tonally all over the map.
In case you’ve forgotten that Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me’’) can be the most irritating nonfiction filmmaker alive, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name’’ is here to remind you. Ostensibly a look at how birth-names do or do not predict socioeconomic success, the segment goes for easy, borderline-racist laughs. The points made seem obvious and the figures are in short supply: There’s too much freak and not enough ’nomics.
Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,’’ “Casino Jack and the United States of Money’’) tackles the book’s chapter on cheating in the world of Japanese sumo wrestling, which at least delivers some striking visuals. Why he takes a left turn into investigative journalism before tying his thesis to Wall Street crooks is less clear. In “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,’’ Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight’’) takes on Levitt and Dubner’s most controversial thesis: that the mid-1990s drop in crime rates is due not to Rudy Giuliani’s policing tactics but to the Roe v. Wade decision two decades earlier. It’s a solid enough filmmaking effort that, again, needs more numbers.
The authors’ underlying themes — that statistics reflect how we react to unintended incentives and how intended incentives can affect our behavior — get a workout in the final segment, “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?’’ Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp’’) document an experiment overseen by the University of Chicago’s economics department in which failing high-school kids are given $50 a month if they can hoist their grades.
This is the only part of “Freakonomics’’ that focuses on individuals: a live-wire teenage screw-up named Urail and a baby-faced junior thug named Kevin. One succeeds, the other doesn’t, and what have we learned? That statistics don’t always tell the whole story and that the movie has unaccountably missed the real story, which is how and why these kids are falling through the cracks. (For that, see “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ’’ the far superior documentary about the US education system that opens today.) Oh, and that peppy economic determinism makes for lousy cinema.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.