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Dustin Putman

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Freakonomics  (2010)
2 Stars
Directed by Seth Gordon, Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing, Rachel Grady.
2010 – 93 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for elements of violence, sexuality/nudity, drugs, and brief strong language).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, September 13, 2010.
An anthological documentary based on the best-selling book by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, "Freakonomics" misrepresents itself as being about "the hidden side of everything." If the marketing campaign were more truthful, it would instead describe itself as "the hidden side of roughly six or seven things." Four short-form docs bridged by transitional segments where authors Levitt and Dubner trade ideas and anecdotes about a few different subjects (i.e. cheating, incentives, cause and effect), the film is spotty and unfocused, never adding up to a complete or satisfying whole. By the end, don't be surprised if you are still asking yourself what, exactly, the definition of freakonomics is.

The central four stories, each helmed by a different documentary filmmaker, are hit-and-miss. In "A Roshanda By Any Other Name," Morgan Spurlock (2004's "Super Size Me") intriguingly explores whether or not someone's name is enough to determine the path they will take in their life. Hitting upon the cultural segregation that comes with certain names (there is a funny story of a mother who wanted to name her daughter after "The Cosby Show" actress Tempestt Bledsoe, but misspelled it on the birth certificate as "Temptress"), Spurlock ultimately comes to an unsurprising conclusion: that it is a person's socio-economic background, not what they are called, that informs their future.

In the second and least tale, "Pure Corruption," director Alex Gibney (2005's "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") questions if there is a profession where cheating in one form or another does not exist. Gibney narrows in on sumo wrestling and the controversy surrounding fixed competitions, known as yaochō. Dry and stagnant, this segment slows the perky pacing of the previous short to a crawl. Third up is the provocative but too-short "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life," directed by Eugene Jarecki (2006's "Why We Fight"), which hypothesizes a surprisingly plausible reason for why crime decreased across the country at the tail-end of the 1980s.

Finally, the last section ends things on a relatively high note despite its well-foreseen outcome. Directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (2006's "Jesus Camp"), "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" wonders what might happen if high-schoolers started receiving monthly incentives of fifty dollars to pull up all their grades to a C or higher. This initiative is put to the test in Chicago Heights, Illinois, where Ewing and Grady follow two different ninth-grade boys who are failing most of their classes. While one of them does manage to pull up his grades, it is an ongoing process that takes several months to achieve. As for the other, he continues to flunk, believing that his social status among his peers is more important than his education. When taken as an entire class, the number of C-or-better students rises, but only by a single-digit percentile. By actually getting to know several of their real-life subjects, Ewing and Grady have crafted the most involving segment in an underwhelming group.

In a "60 Minutes"-style journalistic program format, "Freakonomics" may actually work as its own franchise. As a motion picture, however, it lacks depth, scope, and a crucial emotional connection for the viewer. Furthermore, its thematic core is one that no one has seemed to figure out, each topic seemingly chosen at random. By offering up little in the way of revelatory findings, the experience is an impersonal one, occasionally engaging but never adding up to a whole lot. "Freakonomics" should have been retooled as a television news magazine, where "the hidden side of everything" might have been a description not as far from the truth.
© 2010 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman