Freakonomics: The Movie Review

In 2005, economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner published the book Freakonomics, which in a remarkable lucid manner demonstrated the power of economic thinking to a wide audience. Focusing on the importance of incentives, the authors guided the reader through a range of Levitt’s research on diverse topics as cheating in sumo wrestling, price setting in real estate markets, living habits of drug dealers, the potential importance of naming conventions for children’s future, and the probably most controversial topic (in practically any aspect): the potential impact of legalized abortion on crime rates. The book provided new and provocative insights into what economists can do with their toolboxes, and I must admit that I have given it as a gift many times to make people understand that economics is not just about more mundane things as whether an increase in the inflation rate of 0.1 percentage points is a sign of coming disasters. And many are the times I have gotten in trouble when explaining that the fall in the crime rate in the 1990s in the US could be due to legalization of abortion in the 1970s in the sense that a lot of criminals as a consequence were simply not born. People have a hard time distinguishing the narrative from the non-existent agenda behind the research, and some have concluded that the authors must be racists, Nazis or worse, and that I more or less much be the same, when I find such research of interest. In other words, I like the book a lot.

As is the case of many bestsellers, the book has now been turned into a movie. Thereby, it must be among the very first economics books ever getting that treatment. When I say “now”, I am being slightly misleading, but the 2010 documentary did not get theatrical distribution in Europe, so I had to wait for the DVD release. Now I have it, and have seen it. I was worried beforehand, as successful books rarely turn into good movies. There are exceptions, of course (The Godfather and The Name of the Rose come to mind), but often good adaptations come from lesser known books (think Psycho). Judged by the credits of the movie, however, I couldn’t help have my hopes up: Seth Gordon, who directs a number of smaller segments of the film, has assembled a group of high-profile documentary filmmakers to each make a longer mini-documentary on one particular subject from the Freakonomics universe.

Gordon’s segments are mainly shots of Levitt and Dubner explaining and discussing various subjects, spiced up with cartoonish graphics to get the points through. Some segments are well crafted, but some appear not sufficiently complete. In contrast with the book, e.g., one does not learn what special pattern Levitt searched for, and found, to discover that teachers deliberately altered student’s test scores to the better. We just see a bunch of flying numbers, which gradually form a number of identical sequences that are then eventually aligned on top of each other. Wow! And on to the next subject. As an example of how correlations have nothing to do with causality, Levitt and Dubner tell the story about how polio in the 1950s was being suspected to be related to ice-cream consumption. The reason being that polio mostly broke out during the summer. Well, what did cause polio to break out mostly during the summers, now that it obviously wasn’t ice cream consumption? To the viewer, a hint to the actual solution would be a nice closure. In between these small segments are the four mini-documentaries that constitute the main parts of the movie.

“A Roshanda by Any Other Name” is directed by Morgan Spurlock (Oscar nominee for Super Size Me in 2004), and tells the story about how names may affect children’s success in life. It is done in a rather conventional news-segment style with emphasis on interviews with people on the streets and statements by a few experts on names. We are presented for evidence that names convey ethnicity, which then can affect job opportunities, but the segment more or less fades out with smiling faces assuring the viewer that it doesn’t really matter what you name your kid. Why bother then? The segment “Pure Corruption” is directed by Alex Gibney (Oscar winner for Taxi to the Dark Side from 2007), and is by far the best part of the movie. It could easily have been developed into an intriguing full-length documentary in itself. Its point of departure is the detection of Yaochō (match fixing) in professional sumo wrestling. The way the tournaments are set up, creates matches where the outcome is pivotal for one wrestler and almost irrelevant for the other; in accordance with incentives, the wrestler with most to win actually wins most of the times, even though he subsequently may lose several times to the same opponent. Evidently, this smells of cheating. The segment goes much deeper than this, however, and focuses on the special codes of honor prevailing in the hierarchy of sumo wrestling. It is great filmmaking with a clear narrative presenting fascinating accounts on tragic and controversial events within this special sport. In the process, it wanders away from the subject of economics, and maybe therefore some weak analogies between corrupt leading figures in the sport and corrupt financial tycoons (Bernie Madoff and others), who are held responsible for the recent financial crisis, are thrown in at the end. A disappointing and abrupt finish to a fascinating view into a different world.

“It’s not Always a Wonderful Life” directed by Eugene Jarecki (who made the critically acclaimed Why We Fight in 2005), is the segment that explains the story about abortion and crime rates. It is told by a voice-over narrator, and breaks the continuity of the overall movie by spending time introducing Levitt as if we didn’t already knew him. Maybe I getting overtly sensitive, but I found the exaggerated (ab)use of clips from Frank Capra’s 1946 masterpiece It’s A Wonderful Life quite disturbing. In that movie, for those few who do not know it, James Stewart’s suicidal character, George, is by divine intervention given the chance to experience life in case he wasn’t born. The experience cures his depression and makes him want to live again. Hence the title of the movie. The name for the segment is of course a nod to Capra, but it has the unfortunate implication of reversing the morale of the original movie: Apparently it can be better not to be born after all. Thereby, it, in my eyes, takes a stand on abortion, which it otherwise does everything so as to avoid. It ultimately appears clumsy at best.

The last major segment, “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?” is directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Oscar nominees for their 2006 Jesus Camp). It follows an experiment run by Levitt and others (not in the original book) in which they test whether monetary incentives can induce better studying habits among ninth grade students. Students are through the year awarded $50 whenever their grades improve appropriately, and they become eligible for participating in a lottery for a $500 equivalent prize (involving driving around in a huge limo). To make the story of human interest, we closely follow two students with initial low grades, and their various ways of trying to improve. From that point on it turns into what looks like a conventional reality-TV show: Who will win? It is semi-dreadful to watch, and one of our young friends not only improves his grades to earn him $50, but he also wins the full $500 prize (the other one did not respond to incentives). This must have been a very expensive mini-documentary to shoot, as the directors surely have followed the everyday life of all students participating in the experiment, such that they could be certain to have extensive footage of whoever would win in the end. Alternatively, the whole thing is just bogus, as are the kind of cheap TV shows it mimics so well. At the end, Levitt and his fellow researchers are seen discussing the preliminary results of the experiment, and apparently they are disappointed with the measured incentive effects. We then hear Levitt off screen contemplating a redesign of the experiment, addressing new questions, and concluding that it will be fun. Yes, fun. Well, economics is fun and interesting at the same time. I will definitely not dispute that, and I applaud any attempt to disseminate that fact to a wider audience. But the segment and the whole movie, being comprised of such diverse styles of filmmaking, give the impression of Freakonomics just being about having aimless fun. Fun for the sake of fun (Levitt and Dubner are indeed laughing most of the time when they are on camera). The movie misses out on giving the viewer a sense of the importance of economic thinking, which is just as crucial as the fun. A job the book did so very well.

So overall, and I hate to say it, the movie is a disappointment. Maybe I had too high hopes, or maybe I couldn’t be sufficiently surprised by most of the stories since I have read the book. I don’t know, but ex post I would have preferred reading the book again instead. And Alex Gibney should clearly have done an independent documentary on sumo wrestling.

Freakonomics at IMDb

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