As a huge fan of the Freakonomics books I was thrilled to see the new film based on them last night. I’m still not sure if the film lived up to my massive expectations, but I am sure I enjoyed it.
More of a film festival than a film, Freakonomics is about a lot of things – sumo wrestlers cheating, abortions lowering crime rates and bribes encouraging children to study, to name a few. The central thesis of the film, much like the books that inspired it, is simple: incentives matter. People react to incentives, but not necessarily in the ways you’d expect.
For example: real estate agents. Early on in the film it’s pointed out that a realtor’s best interest isn’t necessarily aligned with yours, because you getting an extra $10,000 isn’t necessarily worth them working an extra week for a minor increase in commission. In the film Levitt states you can prove this by comparing how long realtors take to sell clients houses to how long realtors take to sell their own houses.
These kinds of scenarios are played out a few times in the film, the product of 6 different directors. The film is divided into four different short films, tied together with segments featuring Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner (co-authors of Freakonomics and Superfreakonomics.)
The first segment, directed by Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock, examines whether a given name can cause a child to turn out a certain way. Paced quickly in Spurlocks typical style, this segment concludes that your name doesn’t so much cause your future as tell you a lot about the socio-economic situation you were born into. There are some cheap laughs here, which I enjoyed, and it’s a great short to start with.
Next up is “Pure Corruption”, which examines the prevalence of cheating in sumo wrestling. Director Alex Gibney, who brought us Enron: The Smartest Guys In Room, connects the corruption of sumo wrestlers, and Japanese culture’s inability to admit there’s a problem, to corporate America’s corruption. The change in pacing from Spurlock’s section is dramatic, and yet somehow this more reflective section works well.
I wish the same could be said for It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life, the third section. This piece examines infamous study about the effects of legalized abortion on crime, which concludes that the dramatic drop in American crime in the 1990’s is directly related to Roe V. Wade passing 20 years earlier. Considering this argument is one of the most compelling in the original book it was disappointed to see it translate so poorly to film, but
Happily things picked up during the finale: Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed. Directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady made one of my favorite films, Jesus Camp, in which they excelled at letting kids talk for themselves. This segment excels at that too, as economists try to encourage kids to do well in school by offering cash incentives. I think this was my favorite part of the movie, because the kid’s motivations were so clearly defined and because the incentives didn’t seem to work the way you’d expect.
Overall Freakonomics is a lot of fun with a bit of educational value. Don’t expect to see as much information conveyed as in the books, but expect to have a good time and do a little bit of unconventional thinking. I’m not sure the film meets the massive expectations I had, but I certainly enjoyed myself.
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