Freakonomics unites a number of acclaimed documentary filmmaker’s in an ambitious attempt to adapt Steven D Levitt and Stephen J Dubner’s 2005 bestseller of the same name for cinema audiences. Comprised of 4 mini-documentaries, the film tries to be both informative and entertaining as it sets about explaining the reasons behind baby naming trends, cheating within the world of sumo wrestling, low crime levels during the 90s and, finally, how incentives might be used to improve high-school exam results.
At its best, Freakonomics is a light-hearted examination of certain little thought about phenomenon, the kind of school-friendly documentary that plays more like a Ben and Jerry’s advert than an episode of The Sky At Night. However, with four very different film’s keeping the subject matter broad, each segment is differentially successful – no doubt proving intriguing to some while completely disengaging for others.
A psychologist by degree, the discussion of baby name trends and child incentives held my interests despite treading topics I was already familiar with. The director behind first segment, “A Rashonda By Any Other Name” - Super-Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock – combines animated and live-action demonstrations to create the most fulfilling documentary on the DVD. The fine line between wit and education is never treaded finer than here, with winning punctuation from creators Levitt and Dubner proving beautifully compelling.
Sadly, Freakonomics peaks with its first mini-segment, leaving Alex Gibney’s tale of fixed sumo wrestling tournaments to quickly pale in comparison. Holding little interest with its decidedly serious tone and resistance to the other documentaries’ collective light hearted tone, “Pure Corruption” stands out as the least inventive and entertainment-focussed segment in the collection.
The final two documentaries then, Eugene Jarecki’s “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?”, strike somewhere in the middle. The former proving perhaps the most controversial of the four main segments, it intercuts scenes from Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life to suggest that the early ’90s low crime levels resulted from the legalization of abortion in the US after the case of Roe vs. Wade. The latter, which examines the use of financial incentives to promote education (I suppose the British equivalent would be the EMA scheme), explores its subject matter through effective dramatisation, using two under-achievers to illustrate their findings.
Although Freakonomics is both insightful and engaging, it rarely strikes an effective balance between its two opposing intents. While the documentaries prove a mixed bag, the expertly handled interludes courtesy of original book writers Levitt and Dubner (unwittingly stealing the show in a fantastic special features conversation) always give you something to look forward to. However informative or entertaining, however, Freakonomics is nevertheless undermined by a palpable smugness which gives proceedings the feel of one of Google’s self-congratulating press conferences. At a mere 85 minutes long, you might still get more in the way of humorous titbits from a game of Trivial Pursuit.