LITTLE ROCK — Freakonomics, the latest product to be spun off from the best-selling 2005 book by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, is an omnibus film that stitches together the work of five different teams of directors working independently of each other to uncover “the hidden side” of various social phenomena.
It is an enjoyable, lightweight affair that plays like the pilot for a premium cable series - something like a less raucous version of the Penn & Teller’s Showtime series with the name that can’t be printed here but begins with “Bull.” It’s really four little movies and some entertaining interstitial material - directed by Seth Gordon (King of Kong) - that features the charmingly nerdy Levittand Dubner explaining how incentives run the game.
The four main stories, however, are more hit and miss, and most of them seem to drag on a little too long, so that even at its modest running time Freakonomics feels a little draggy. A nip here, a tuck there andyou’d have a good solid hour of TV.
Probably the best - and certainly the most controversial - segment is “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” a Eugene Jarecki-directed, animated chapter (narrated, rather wonderfully, by Melvin Van Peebles) on the connection between legalized abortion and drop in the crime rate in the United States 20 years later. Following the logic of a similar chapter in the book, Jarecki bounces between re-purposed footage of Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, the strongman tactics of Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and the unintended impact of Roe v. Wade.
By contrast, Morgan Spurlock’s piece on the importance (or unimportance) of the names given to childrenfeels lightweight and snarky. And Alex Gibney’s essay on corruption in Japanese sumo wrestling is an otherwise great piece of journalism that seems to overreach when it compares the hypocrisy inherent in the Japanese concept of “tatamae” (superficial appearances) to The New York Times’ squeamish reluctance to apply the word “torture” to U.S. anti-terror investigations - a newspaper’s quirks hardly seem equivalent to an ingrained cultural precondition.
Finally, in “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed,” Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) deliver an interesting piece on a University of Chicago experiment that oscillates between warmth and a kind of horrific fascination at the indifferent insolence of the nation’s bored, stupid youth.