Equal parts journalistic exposé and targeted anthropological dissection, the slick anthology production “Freakonomics” makes heavy ideas go down easy. That’s the point, of course: Based on Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s bestselling 2005 tome, the movie explores “the hidden side of everything” — meaning the interpersonal rituals dictating when societal decisions get made, or should get made, or should not get made. It’s a broad topic, which justifies the mini-movie format for probing the book’s central concepts. Directed by a documentarian “dream team” composed of established non-fiction storytellers with divergent approaches, “Freakonomics” has a cumulative effect that comes across like a series of intelligent dinner table discussions stuffed into feature-length form.
Taking his central cue from Levitt’s conviction that “incentives matter,” executive producer Seth Gordon (“The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters”) directs several introductory segments featuring Levitt (the economist) and Dubner (the journalist) breaking down the book’s main assertions, aided by playful 2-D animation. The first of these sequences borrows from an early chapter in the source material, taking on self-interested real estate agents to explain the authors’ intention of parsing the motives behind many phenomena often taken for granted. While Gordon’s fluffy treatment of his chatty subjects suggests the potential for a “This American Life”-type television series, the individual short films embody their claims with a variety of methods.
The directors stick to their respective cinematic guns: Morgan Spurlock narrates an amusing look at the “label market,” considering whether or not names dictate a person’s success in life. As with many of the questions raised in “Freakonomics,” the answer is yes, no and maybe — but Spurlock ably glosses over the ambiguity with a series of humorously staged reenactments and entertaining street interviews. Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp”) present a grounded, predominantly verite account of a high school’s attempt at bribing students to improve their grades. The currently prolific Alex Gibney delivers the most profound, intellectually advanced experience with a rumination on cheating in the sumo wrestler community, constructing his story out of interviews and expressive imagery. But “Why We Fight” director Eugene Jarecki’s short, on Levitt’s controversial theory that abortion contributes to a drop in crime rates, undoubtedly contains the greatest amount of emotional weight.
Using edgy animation to underscore the contentious argument, Jarecki applies clips from “It’s a Wonderful Life” and a voiceover narration by Melvin van Peebles to create multiple layers of commentary. Paired with Gibney’s shadowy, conspiratorial peek at secrecy in contemporary Japan, it offers a smart reconfiguration of the book in complex audiovisual terms. This duo of sophisticated episodes make the other two shorts look rather basic by comparison, although neither Spurlock nor Ewing and Grady lack the ability to move “Freakonomics” from a readable to a watchable construction. Both pieces err on the side of fun.
Spurlock’s serious breakdown of the presumption that African American names impact employment options takes a satiric route with his comical script. (At one point, he concludes that “today’s high rent Ashley becomes tomorrow’s low rent Trashley.”) Grady and Ewing competently reveal a handful of academically-challenged young subjects for whom bribery has mixed results. The filmmakers match empirical data from the study with a group of energetic teens, although compared to the more powerful segments, their project bears the distinct mold of reality television.
As “Freakonomics” shifts gears every twenty minutes or so, its continuity lies in the theories, not the entire product. Frequent stylistic change-ups lead to a feeling akin to flipping through the channels of Levitt and Dubner’s minds. Gordon’s worshipful interstitial bits elevate the authors to the roles of domineering authority figures, which is part of the point. If their book tells stories as educational tools, then the movie logically expands their classroom. The project serves not only to adapt the original “Freakonomics,” but also to broaden its reach. A television series or a sequel could follow without much resistance. Scrutinizing social behavior as a kind of systematic manipulation opens up possibilities for endless narratives, and the four included here certainly don’t seem like the sole definitive ones. Accordingly, the documentary’s existence provides an incentive for maintaining the ongoing appeal of its source.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This review was originally published as part of indieWIRE’s coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival.