September 16, 2010


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Freakonomics (PG-13)
Economics can be exciting and surprising — thus is the message of Freakonomics the books and the movie, a documentary featuring some of the discussions from the book.

The legalization of abortion helped to lower crime, giving your baby a so-called “black” name could lead to his or her having trouble getting work, the rules of sumo wrestling incentivized cheating. These concepts from the book get illustration and expansion in this multipart documentary. In the movie’s beginning, the book’s authors sum up their work as a study of incentives. You can pay ninth-graders to get good grades, as members of a University of Chicago study do in one of the movie’s sections, but perhaps different incentives — being known as the class clown — will be more immediately important than some promised $50 at a distant month-away point. In the sumo case, obviously there are incentives to win and stay on top in the rankings, but within that there are also incentives to lose to help a friend.

Sometimes, the argument they try to lay out is one of fairly direct cause and effect — women could get legal abortions so they could decide not to have children. Fewer unwanted, poorly parented children, the movie argues, means fewer criminals, means less crime.

Sometimes, there is no argument per se — the case of the ninth-graders offered $50 to improve their grades proves only that you can’t only bribe kids for good grades (and, if you can, you will need more than $50 to bribe all of them). It doesn’t actually get into what different forces might be working here or how you could play on those issues to get the desired result (fewer failing ninth-graders).

Freakonomics doesn’t illuminate the arguments or the world view set up in the book. In the book, more words can help fill out and add context to an argument. The movie doesn’t use the enough of the visual equivalents of that kind of texture to truly make the transition from non-fiction book to screen completely worthwhile. What it might do is answer the question “Do I want to read the Freakonomics books?” for those who haven’t so far. You get a sense here of the ease with which you can glide through the book and the relative simplicity (for better or for worse) of the arguments made therein. C+

Rated PG-13 for elements of violence, sexuality/nudity, drugs and brief strong language. Directed by Morgan Spurlock, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki and Seth Gordon from the book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics is an hour and 25 minutes long and distributed by Magnolia Pictures. It is available in video on-demand.