A motley jumble of mini-documentaries that doesn't add up to a full cinematic meal, "Freakonomics" offers morsels worth pondering but looks most of all like an attempt to spin the surprisingly popular book into a TV series to match the New York Times Magazine column the authors already write.
Producer Chad Troutwine recruited high-profile names from the current crop of documentarians and got mixed results. Morgan Spurlock strains for laughs and relies too much on man-on-the-street material (and, until the end, seems not to really understand the question he's addressing). His glib energy makes Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's look at paying students who improve their grades look blah and nerdy.
Alex Gibney has the most stylish segment (one that actually looks better than his own features) but won't stay on topic. After an intriguing intro showing how the win/loss histories of sumo wrestlers proved that cheating was widespread in the sport, he spends too much time on post-revelation scandals and investigations that, while interesting, have nothing to do with the movie's number-centric umbrella topics.
The meatiest section, best exemplifying the methods and philosophies of "Freakonomics" team Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is a compelling and sure-to-offend assertion that 1973's Roe v. Wade decision led directly to the nationwide drop in crime rates in the 1990s. (The authors argue that unwanted children are statistically at higher risk of turning to crime, so reducing the number of unwanted children being born meant fewer criminals 20 years later.)
But director Eugene Jarecki inexplicably ties all this provocative material up in goofy allusions to the holiday film "It's a Wonderful Life," tempting viewers to take the ideas less seriously than they should. That superfluous element is echoed throughout the film by animation that is too cute here, too moody there, and rarely used to good illustrative effect.
Levitt and Dubner have already been accused of trying too hard to push their (often very useful) ideas into the mainstream. "Freakonomics," the movie, does just that.
Our grade: C
Running Time: 86 min
MPAA rating: PG-13
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