As anthology films go, Freakonomics is an entertaining -- if occasionally scattershot -- documentary. But then, that was the nature of the book by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, upon which the film was based.
Levitt, an economist and scholar, and Dubner, a journalist, looked at a variety of social phenomena through the statistical prisms of causality and incentive. Their book considered a variety of items from the standpoint of the data -- and what the numbers showed that the surface appearance didn't.
For the film, the cadre of producers put together a seemingly all-star team of documentarians and did that same thing. So Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) exposes cheating in sumo wrestling; Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) looks at the 1990s' drop in the crime rate; Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) discovers whether you can bribe ninth-graders to get good grades -- and Morgan Spurlock (Super-Size Me) examines whether your name is your destiny (particularly if you're an African-American with a distinctly African-American name).
Each director brings both visual style and personal flair to their segments. Ewing's is the most straightforward, following a pair of ninth-graders who both claim they'll buckle down and hit the books in order to earn $50 a month for an uptick in grades -- and a possible grand prize of a ride in a Hummer stretch limo. Jarecki, by contrast, relies mostly on computer animation to show that a huge part of the drop in crime rate in the '90s can be attributed to the significant drop in unwanted children since Roe v. Wade in 1973.
Of the two, the Jarecki piece -- with its play on It's a Wonderful Life -- is the more intriguing. Without promoting abortion as a crime-fighting solution, it aptly draws the viewer toward the conclusion that unwanted children are more likely to become criminals, that the option of choice for a woman with an unwanted pregnancy leads to fewer such children and that, as a result, the number of potential criminals dropped sharply. It's not about social engineering; rather, it's about recognizing the price of forcing women to bear children they don't want.
Gibney's piece starts with Levitt's statistical analysis of sumo-wrestling results in the top ranks. His conclusion: In matches where one wrestler had nothing to lose (in terms of rank) and the other stood to suffer if he didn't win their match, the one who needed to win usually did -- because the other guy let him.
Stated that way, it seems like just a harmless collegial favor -- but sumo, like much about Japan, is about honor and purity. So this amounts to cheating -- which means that there is a massive, on-going cover-up. And, as Gibney adroitly shows in peeling away the layers, cheating is rarely mentioned or suspected because the appearance of purity makes it hard for most observers to even conceive of. Then he casually ties that kind of fraud to the massive financial collapse in this country, built on the notion of being too big to fail. Look at everyone who couldn't see beyond that particular façade.
Spurlock's piece is seemingly the lightest but turns out to be both the most entertaining -- and one of the most pointed. In getting black and white people to talk on camera about the differences between the names of the two cultures, he scratches the surface of the unspoken racism that rarely gets aired in this country. Yet the divide is obviously there, in something as simple as a white interviewee saying that, because his friend's drug dealer is named Tyrone, he assumes that he's black. What's in a name, indeed.
As with any omnibus film, Freakonomics offers a little of a lot -- although, to its credit, it gives each filmmaker between 15 and 20 minutes each, enough room to expand beyond simple ideas into something more complex. There aren't any weak links in the lineup, which makes it a varied and involving piece.