More than just a summary for people too lazy to pick up a bestseller, the movie version of Freakonomics (though still quite unnecessary) can be viewed as a survey of the many ways people today make documentaries. Cutesy, moody, stylishly controversial, faux-verité—all are accounted for in this spotty omnibus project, which parcels out four of the book’s sections to five documentarians (The King of Kong’s Seth Gordon took the short transitional items) who are as a group responsible for some of our era’s most overrated nonfiction blockbusters.
The results are varied—not least in tone. Morgan Spurlock predictably brings the cutesy (ditto Gordon) to his section on name choice—whether, for example, employers (consciously or not) discriminate against applicants with “black” names. The Super Size Me dickhead’s “look, Ma, no stunt” stunt is annoying, but the substance of Freakonomics authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s research overpowers their director’s perky attempts to ruin it.
The piece on crookedness in sumo wrestling improves with a tonal 180, oozing Errol Morris menace. Strikingly mysterious imagery abounds as the absurdly prolific Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Darkside, Casino Jack, the forthcoming Elliot Spitzer doc Client 9) gradually ties an exposé of a nation’s hallowed ritual into America’s squandered trust in scheming bankers.
Stuck with the shortest straw, Why We Fight’s Eugene Jarecki tackles the book’s most controversial chapter: Levitt’s dodgy claim that the precipitous drop in crime around 1989 is due not to better policing, but to Roe v. Wade. Levitt theorizes in the book that an untold number of unwanted kids who would have been raised by a single parent and had difficult, impoverished lives—statistically, much more likely to commit crimes than wanted children—were simply never born. The film’s most succinct entry, it stylishly mixes animation with live action in arresting, prickly ways; the use of It’s A Wonderful Life is wonderfully tasteless.
The capping piece from Heidi Ewing and Rachey Grady (Jesus Camp) brings the tone back to Spurlockian bubbliness, not treating the subject of whether struggling students can be bribed into doing better with even minimal seriousness.
So that’s two out of five—not bad for a film with no decent reason to exist. Arrive late, leave early—better yet, just read the book.