What numbers reveal and hide
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, October 1, 2010
Here's a stumper for authors Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the geniuses behind the 2005 best-seller "Freakonomics," which mined strange correspondences and uncanny connections out of the damnedest, most seemingly unrelated things (more widely available abortion and the falling crime rate, for instance):
Even if you've never read the book, why does the new documentary based on it feel so . . . familiar?
Maybe it's because of all those cocktail-party conversations the book inspired. At this point, who in Washington doesn't feel like they've read it? Or maybe it was all those New York Times Sunday magazine articles the authors penned under the "Freakonomics" banner. They certainly helped make the term -- which describes a new way of looking at the world and the sometimes unexpected way things work -- a household word.
Maybe, just maybe, it's because the movie isn't freakin' freaky enough.
It certainly comes with a pedigree. The omnibus documentary is a compendium of four "chapters," each based on a section of the book and each directed by a different hotshot documentarian. In "A Roshanda by Any Other Name," Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") looks at the economic impact of "black" vs. "white" names. In "Pure Corruption," Alex Gibney ("Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room") examines cheating in the world of Japanese sumo wrestling. In "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life," Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight") plumbs the aforementioned connection between abortion and crime. And finally, in "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing ("Jesus Camp") ask whether -- well, the title of that last one is kind of self-explanatory.
That could be part of the problem.
There's a certain obviousness to the movie that blunts some points made by Levitt and Dubner, who appear between segments in lively interviews. Take, for example, the revelation, in Spurlock's generally bouncy installment, that the same résumé, sent out once under the name Tyrone -- and again under another stereotypically white-sounding name -- would generate fewer call-backs. The fact that such prejudice still exists, even in this supposedly post-racial age, is disturbing but hardly a bombshell. Nor is cheating among sumo athletes, at least to American ears, which have become inured to hearing about such sporting scandals. The most interesting thing about that segment, which plays like an episode of "60 Minutes" or "20/20," is the statistical analysis that led to the conclusion that cheating among Japanese wrestlers was rampant.
But perhaps the freakiest of the "Freakonomics" chapters is the one drawing a link between the legalization of abortion in America and the attendant drop in crime. It's controversial -- oh my, yes -- which makes it most deserving of the movie's title, whether you agree with the premise or not. Yet in the movie at least , the hypothesis that fewer unwanted children naturally equates to fewer criminals seems hardly as "unimpeached" as Jarecki's segment calls it.
As for the final installment, it asks a provocative question: Can the incentive of cold, hard cash induce high-schoolers to hit the books? The film follows two kids in a Chicago cash-for-grades program. One improves his report card, and the other, um, doesn't. In a movie, such anecdotal storytelling may make for better drama, but it doesn't really make the authors' point, let alone answer their own question.
In the end, we see Levitt -- he's an economist, Dubner a journalist -- wondering aloud whether the experiment might work better if they started the carrot-and-stick approach earlier, say, in elementary school.
Yeah, maybe. Get back to us when you find out.
Contains obscenity and scenes in a strip club. In English and some Japanese with English subtitles.