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Turning Perfectly Good Currency Into Monopoly Money

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 6, 2010 |

By Brian Prisco | Film | October 6, 2010 |

In the documentary Freakonomics, six different filmmakers attempt to try to blow your mind with old dynamite. The source material’s not the problem. Freakonomics is a phenomenally interesting book, and while the ideas it introduces are remarkable, the even more remarkable part is that it’s trying to teach you a new way of thinking. So if you’ve never bothered to read the book, you’ll probably be fascinated by the documentary. Or at least parts of it. The entire project really is nothing more than four short films based on chapters from Freakonomics linked by random episodic little introductions. In most cases, they aren’t really expanding on the material presented in the books, just gussying it up with clever graphics and making it easily digestible. If you’ve read the book, it’s like someone made a karaoke video of the facts. I had strong hopes they were going to expand on the some of the concepts or the thinking, and one or two of the filmmakers didn’t let me down. I would rather have seen them turn this into something like the Masters of Horror series Mick Garris created, only with documentarians taking a nugget of Freakonomics and turning in a fresh spin. What we are presented with is a kind of Freakinfomercial on the stuff that Levitt and Dubner already told us in their book. But, it’s damn entertaining, and if you’ve never heard any of the info, it’ll be eye-opening.

The general concept of Freakonomics is that we should take available data and look at it in fresh and unique ways. You can use the data to discover how teachers are cheating to get results on standards exams, to determine corruption in sumo wrestling, or even studying statistics to determine why the crime rate might have gone down. What’s fascinating about Dubner and Levitt’s book is they present potentially controversial arguments with reams of data without espousing any sort of agenda. Sure, many of their ideas have caused outrage and anger, but they are simply saying, look at the facts and see if you notice the same trends. They want to use data to better the world, no matter how unpopular the facts may be. And the way they present their arguments are really cohesive and linear and jaw-dropping.

Which is what makes the efforts of the documentary segments really upsetting, it just feels like a waste of talent. Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) seems to have been the unifier for the project, essentially writing the spaces in between the short films. Dubner and Levitt are perfectly charming individuals, with a wonderful nerdish charisma. But that comes off much better on the page than on the screen. Presented in the book, their information seemed to have this wonderful overarching flow. In the documentary, it feels like sound bites. The documentary portions themselves are sorted in a different manner than in the text, and it really doesn’t work. Instead of this intelligent, logical progression, we’re kind of jammed with a music-video interpretation. Instead of one huge Freakonomics project, we’re presented with four disparate concepts, and it shows. So it’s only really fair to judge each on their own merits.

Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) has the first film which deals with the differences between black names and white names. Levitt and Dubner in the book demonstrate that there are very unique black names (including 168 variations on the name Unique: such as Uneek, Unuqqee, and Eueqnique). They show the cycles between higher-income first names, and lower-class first names, and how it has potential to affect your hireability. Spurlock’s film comes off like a bad 1980’s Night at the Improv stand-up routine — white people be named this, while black people be all. Amiright? Mmmhhhmm. Worse, he totally confuses the presentation, so you aren’t really sure what he’s trying to say.

Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) handles the second documentary, about rampant cheating in sumo wrestling. What I enjoyed most about this portion was that Gibney really expanded upon his material. He actually showed the aftereffects of the Freakonomics book. Lest we forget, the studies that Levitt conducted as an economist were published and did have a major butterfly effect. By exposing how sumo wrestlers will throw matches to allow competitors to maintain a certain rank and/or receive monetary compensation, they caused a furor in Japan. Gibney actually talks to other investigative Japanese journalists who were writing articles about “yaocho” — match fixing. Wrestlers were killed over this, and for a time, after it was exposed by Levitt and Dubner, the cheating stopped. But then it started up again. It was what I was hoping for from the whole documentary — while not a new idea, at least it went further with it.

Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) handled the third documentary, and the one argument in the entire book that kicked my ass the hardest. I would ask, if you haven’t read the book or if you intend the see the movie, that you just skip over this part, because it may be a spoiler, but even me telling it to you doesn’t effect the power of the argument. Jarecki intersperses It’s a Wonderful Life with Dubner and Levitt’s controversial proposition that Roe v. Wade was essentially responsible for the lower crime rates in the 1990s. Jarecki scrambles the really cohesive argument that Levitt and Dubner put forth in Freakonomics, and while it’s not as slapdash as the job Spurlock did with baby names, it still seems organized more to be controversially tantalizing than actually explaining their whole brilliant argument. When crime dropped drastically and inexplicably in the 1990s, many people put forward all sorts of factors, such as stricter police enforcement, tougher jail sentences, and gun control. Dubner and Levitt studied all those facts and could only account for about 50 percent of the drop. Legalized abortions are performed mostly for lower-income, poor, minority, and teenage mothers. Typically these children are unwanted. Statistically, unwanted children grow up to commit crimes. By giving mothers the opportunity and choice to abort those unwanted children, they were effectively removing future criminals from the streets. Holy shit, right? But this was another instance where they studied data and put forth a statement. They were not advocating abortion as a means of crime-prevention. They were simply pointing out something they noticed in the data. And yet, this is the one fact that most people take away from Freakonomics, that these racist baby-killers are just saying we should dumpster generations of children. And what you should be taking away is that data has no racist agenda. Still, Jarecki knew the explosive implications of racism that would follow such an argument to the point that he had Melvin Van Peebles narrate this segment.

The final segment was done by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) and dealt with an economics college study about financial incentives being used to improve high school grades. I was pretty excited about this part of the film, because it seemed for the first time to be taking Freakonomics and doing something that wasn’t written about in the book, but performing it as an action. But then my lovely editor pointed out that they had written about this in Super Freakonomics. So much for that. But it was still new to me, and I enjoyed the hell out of it. Particularly, the one kid Urail King, who needs his own talk show on MTV. Right now. Basically, the University of Chicago went in to a high school and said, “If you maintain certain standards — a C average and no unexcused absences — every month we will pay you $50. And you will be eligible for a raffle to win a limo ride and $500.” This entire portion of the film was almost a counterpoint to the entire point of Waiting for Superman. Because even when some of the kids were offered cash money, in their hands, to do what they were supposed to fucking be doing anyway, they still failed. In some cases, they did worse. Even with parental support. So it proved that even with the most supportive parents and with someone willing to hand you free money, there are some kids who just won’t try and that even the most commonsensical incentive programs aren’t effective.

The last segment gelled really well with one of Seth Gordon’s introductory moments, where Steven Levitt explained how his three year old daughter essentially thwarted his candy bribery incentive attempts to get her potty trained. It was a cute story, it proved a nice point about incentives, and it really aligned nicely with the school segment. While I had hoped for more out of Freakonomics, it’s still a really nice piece of work. And if you haven’t read the book, it will be a nice introduction to a book that you should read. Even if you don’t buy into the arguments — and I’m just awaiting the fucking Buckleys in the comments section that will be more than happy to point out the numerous studies and shit that they meticulously researched that proves that all THIS is bullshit too — that’s kind of their point. You should be looking at the information, and you should be trying to prove them wrong. The idea behind Freakonomics is to look for new ideas. And anything promoting that is a worthwhile study.