LAFF 2010 Review: FREAKONOMICS

by: Kate Erbland
June 28th, 2010

Rating: 2.5/5

Writers: Peter Bull & Alex Gibney, Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady, Seth Gordon, Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner (book)
Directors: Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki, Morgan Spurlock
Producers: Chad Troutwine, Chris Romano, Dan O'Meara

Based on the New York Times bestseller of the same name, FREAKONOMICS seeks to bring to the screen a number of theories as investigated by authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Not a true documentary, the film uses all manner of styles to bring to life what they so popularly put to the page. Though there is an inherent entertainment value in the pop culture-laced theorems the two have crafted, the film probably succeeds more in terms of showcasing different methods of bringing non-fiction, fact-based material to the screen.

An omnibus affair, FREAKNOMICS most notably brings together a host of popular documentarians to create four specific sections on different topics covered in the book (with quick mini-sections in between, cleverly crafted by Seth Gordon). All attack their pieces with different styles and with clearly different aims. And, suffice to say, the Spurlock piece feels like a Spurlock, the Alex Gibney feels like a Gibney, and so on and so forth. But, with so many different pieces, a few are bound to fall flat while others soar.

Spurlock’s section, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” focuses on the impact names have on children. It’s endlessly entertaining on-screen, complete with frisky animations and fun reenactments, but it presents two different arguments and then never really bothers to clear them up. One expert says one thing. Another expert says another. Levitt and Dubner pipe in with their thoughts. Case closed.

Gibney’s piece, “Pure Corruption,” takes on the issue of cheating in sumo wrestling. The section becomes too long-winded, with far too many people weighing in with vastly different opinions. After the fun stylings of Spurlock’s previous piece, it simply feels heavy, and the tragedy that comes in to play in its last third continues to bog it down.  It feels better suited for a Dateline investigative report treatment, despite the fact that its base material was a huge part of the book.

In the third section, Eugene Jarecki takes on one of FREAKONOMICS’ most controversial studies. In “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” the director takes a round-about route to get to the meat of the matter – a theory Levitt put forth that the impact of Roe v. Wade directly influenced the dropping of crime rates in the early nineties. In short, that there were fewer children born that would have gone on to become criminals. The meat of the matter is so glossed over that it’s hard to imagine that people will fully digest just what Jarecki’s piece is saying unless they are hardcore in their abortion rights beliefs. It’s a head-scratcher that will leave many walking out, asking themselves, “wait, that wasn’t – oh, it was?”

The final section, “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?” is directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady and, despite FREAKONOMICS’ skewed sense of reality, feels like the most real of all the pieces. It follows a study done by Levitt and his team to determine if financial incentives can entice kids to get better grades. There is genuine surprise all around when the results are in, which only adds to the sense that there is veracity at play in this last bit, even in what feels increasingly like a staged affair.

FREAKONOMICS is frequently very entertaining, but much of that is due to the easily digestible nature of the issues it presents. It’s not a film that necessarily leaves anything open for debate, as we are routinely reminded that what we are being presented with has been investigated by Levitt and Dubner and should be taken as fact. As an audience, we should be intrigued by FREAKONOMICS, eager to question the hidden truths that lurk in all areas of society, but instead, we’re asked to accept the neat packages delivered on-screen in twenty minute bits.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHMEp1rDc44[/youtube]

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