Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Movie Review: Freakonomics

Freakonomics ***
Directed by:
Seth Gordon (Introduction and Interludes), Morgan Spurlock (A Roshanda by Any Other Name), Alex Gibney (Pure Corruption), Eugene Jarecki (It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life), Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed).
Written By: Seth Gordon and Jeremy Chilnick & Morgan Spurlock and Peter Bull & Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki and Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady based on the book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen Dubner.

The omnibus film has been around for decades. While the idea of gathering a group of highly respected filmmakers together to make short films, all based around a single theme, seems like a good idea, the result is rarely very satisfying. The new film, Freakonomics, applies the formula to the documentary genre – taking the best selling book by Steven Levit and Stephen Dubner as its model. And while the film is not great, it is entertaining, involving and fascinating. In this instance, it actually worked.

The film assembles documentaries Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) and Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp), all of whom, except for Gordon who provides the introduction, and various other interludes between the other longer segments, take a section from the book and make a documentary out of it. While all the films are different, I think they are about equal in terms of quality.

Spurlock’s A Roshanda By Any Other Name, is the first segment. As a filmmaker, I find Spurlock increasingly annoying and smug, but his segment has an undeniably fascinating subject matter, that although Spurlock sticks his nose into a little too much, he cannot ruin. The film looks at the effect something as simple as a name can have on a person. For instance, one social scientist did a study where he sent out the exact same resume to the exact same companies – half with the typically white name Greg, and the other half with the typically black name Tyrone – and discovered that Greg got called for an interview more often than Tyrone did. The film also looks at what effect a name can have on your personality, and what it says about your socio-economic background. The result is a fascinating, amusing documentary about identity.

The next segment is Alex Gibney’s Pure Corruption, which is probably the best of the four docs on display. It looks at a very strange issue – cheating in the world of sumo wrestling, which is supposed to be a very pure sport. The result of analysis of the data suggests that cheating runs through sumo from top to bottom – and most people overlook it because they consider the system pure. Each sumo tournament has a wrestler go through 15 bouts – if you win 8 or more battles, you get more money and more prestige, and if you lose 8 or more, you are shamed. The study finds that almost every time a wrestler with a record of 7-7 goes against a wreslter with a record of 8-6 in the final round, that the 7-7 wrestler almost always wins, yet the next time these two wrestlers meet, the 8-6 wrestler wins. The system is so ingrained in their sport, that violence and even murder have been perpetuated to keep people silent about it. Gibney is on shakier ground when he tries to extrapolate this to the larger, political and economic system in America (if he had more time perhaps he could have done this part properly and more thoroughly – but the result is a fascinating little doc nonetheless.

Eugene Jarecki’s It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life is the most innovative, and controversial, of the shorts. Intercutting scenes of the Frank Capra classic, with animation and statistics, the documentary tries to explain the decrease in violent crime of the early 1990s with the Roe vs. Wade decision. The documentary claims that all the factors given as to why there was such a dramatic decrease in violent crime represented only about 50% of the reason – the other 50% is because a generation of unwanted children – those being the most likely to turn to crime – were not born. It’s a controversial theory, one that cannot wholly be backed up – but offers much food for thought – especially when it shows that those states where abortion was legal before Roe vs. Wade experienced a drop in crime ahead of the rest of the country, and in those states where abortions are more widely available, the crime rate dropped even more. This film is undoubtedly controversial, but like the best documentaries, offers you something interesting to think about.

Finally Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s segement, about a test where they tried to get 9th graders to do better in school by bribing them. Each student who maintained a C or better in every one of their classes, received $50 a month, and a chance to win an additional $500. The results of this test were disappointing – seemingly many kids simply don’t care about getting an education – but the process of the testing itself – and why it worked for some and not for others, was fascinating in and of itself.

Freakonomics is not a great documentary. For one thing, because of its format, none of these issues, which could probably each be a feature doc, were given quite as much time as perhaps they deserved. But the film does offer a lot to think about, and puts it all in an entertaining package. The result may not be great – but it sure is interesting.

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