Freakonomics is the kind of film that would probably be easy to disassemble and refute, piece by piece, if one were so inclined. Like many documentaries of its kind, it is ultimately based on interpretations divined from very specific studies, and conveniently chosen facts. That’s not to say that Freakonomics is a particularly manipulative documentary, just that in the process of emerging from Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s minds into a book, and then from a book to a film outline, and then from an outline to actual footage, surely the gap between the facts and reality have grown a little wider. Ultimately though, Freakonomics is about the idea of looking at the correlations in front of our faces and finding less obvious causation, and a film about an idea is always valuable. The hypothesis to which Levitt and Dubner return time and time again is that looking for a person’s incentive in your most likely path to discovering the truth about any situation. They make a compelling case.
At heart, the film is an anthology documentary that pieces together four separate shorts that each tackle a different chapter of the Freakonomics book. Each section is a distinctly styled film with a beginning, middle and end, along with a different high-profile documentarian behind the camera. The segments pasting everything together (which are essentially Levitt and Dubner talking to each other) were directed by Seth Gordon (King of Kong) and includes an introductory scenario that points to a discrepancy between how long real estate agents keep their houses on the market, and how long they advise to keep a client’s house up. The gap is explained by the minimal return an agent sees with even a significantly higher offer on a client’s house, versus on their own home. Right away the focus is put on the search for hidden incentives, and sets the stage for the four shorts to support the conclusion.
The anthology format works well for the doc, as they are all anchored by the similarly thought-provoking nature of the book’s conclusions, but each strike very different tones that reflect the filmmaker that generated them. The first of the shorts is from Morgan Spurlock, who has became one of the few household-name documentary filmmakers after his hit Super Size Me made such huge waves in popular culture. Spurlock brings his trademark levity and dynamism to “A Roshanda By Any Other Name,” a segment that deals with the culture baggage of naming children and how it is handled differently by black and white families. Spurlock balances humor, frankness and sensitivity when discussing studies that paint a grim picture of the job market for those bearing distinctively ethnic names. It toys with the question “how much does our name define us and seal our destiny?” As you might expect, those with distinctively black names tend to earn significantly less, and have to search for jobs significantly longer than their more traditionally named peers. The film points to that the fact that distinctively ethnic names are often more prevalent among those in socioeconomic stations that already tend to make less money, so the causation/correlation relationship is unclear. The deck is certainly stacked in favor of those with boring handles, it seems.
As generally chipper as the first sequence is, the second dives into a much darker subject, and one that points to much bigger problems endemic in our society. Shot by Alex Gibney, whose success has come from edgy documentaries like Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room and the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side, the segment is called “Pure Corruption” and links the ancient sport of Sumo with American financial markets. There is an immediate contrast between this segment and “A Rashanda By Any Other Name” as the tone quickly becomes dead serious, with much more dramatic, moody photography. “Pure Corruption” is the most successful and intriguing of the shorts, and demonstrates that finding corruption endemic in even ancient and holy institutions is simply a matter of looking at the numbers. Levitt posits that by looking at Sumo wrestling results, you can find that when a higher-ranked wrestler has nothing to lose, but the lower-ranked wrestler has much to gain from a single match, lower-ranked wrestlers win with disproportionate regularity. This suggests pre-arranged results and cheating, and has been corroborated by the very few wrestlers who have spoken out (many of which have met unfortunate and untimely ends). The short goes to great lengths to demonstrate the hostility with which the Sumo leagues and the larger Japanese culture irrationally reject these suggestions, and that action against cheating only results in a year or two of decline before people forget and it picks back up again. Author and former CIA agent Barry Eisler (who blogs regularly on this very site) makes the connection from Sumo to the American money markets, where cheating is hidden among vast quantities of data and any attempt to stifle it only causes the river of corruption to redirect and erode a new path. It’s grim stuff, and potently speaks to the human tendency to cheat in any kind of situation if stakes are high enough.
“It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” filmed by Eugene Jarecki (best known for Why We Fight) is the short with the most simple thesis, though it seems to spend the most time examining context and setting itself up. This is because it is ultimately positing the theory that the drastic crime drop in the United States in the 1990s can be partly attributed to the Supreme Court’s decision in Roe V. Wade. The idea is simple; when abortions were made legal, it resulted in a sharp decline in the amount of children raised by unwilling parents, thus less people with inclinations toward criminal activity were ever born which manifested as a drop in crime rates a generation later. While the point is ultimately convincing, it’s surrounded by controversy and has been dismissed by some other studies. There is an admittedly dodgy sequence in which Levitt very vaguely explain why the typically cited reasons for the decline are inaccurate, before putting forward his own findings. The controversial nature of the assertion results in a short that bends over backwards to supply context and refrain from judgement- you can feel the film trying to avoid sending anti-abortionists raging out of the theater. It’s admirable for the film to simply set the stage for someone to draw their own conclusions or begin their own research, though it may beat around the bush a little much to do so. The editing in this particular segment is well-done though, as it intercuts several trains of thought before merging them together to support the conclusion.
The final short, “Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed To Succeed?” is the least effective mostly because its focus is on a single study that attempts to reward scholastic performance in a public grade school with cash rewards. Two kids, one a near-dropout who openly rebels against his single mother, and another who is simply unfocused are the subjects of the segment, which comes from Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady of Jesus Camp notoriety. There is never a feeling that this program has any chance of succeeding though, and while there are valuable observations in the story of the two kids, the film never draws any conclusions that are particularly valuable. Both students are excited by the prospect of payment but quickly revert to old habits when faced with studying. The fact is plain; $50.00 later is no contest against slacking off and playing video games now. That incentive theme rears its head again, but the piece doesn’t tie it together nearly as effective as the others.
Freakonomics is filled with “I’ve never thought about it that way” moments, making for an equally entertaining and thought-provoking experience. The combination of shorts makes for a double-edged sword though- it keeps perspectives fresh, but the weaker sections are that much more frustrating. Whether you dismiss the numbers, reject the specific conclusions, or accept every conclusion unconditionally, there is a valuable suggestion that we need to be applying more inventive thinking to the problems around us. Our brains work by creating shortcut associations and snap judgments that serve to create overly simple pictures of complex situations. This helps us survive the day, but it drags down our ability to spot more subtle connections and pick up on mistakes of habit. Like any good documentary about our world, Freakonomics entertainingly provokes us to ask unconventional questions and demand unconventional answers.