Text size:

  • Small
  • Normal
  • Large
Alex Gibney's take on the sumo wrestling world doesn't work well with the tone of the other directors' chapters in Freakonomics.
Anonymous HO
Alex Gibney's take on the sumo wrestling world doesn't work well with the tone of the other directors' chapters in Freakonomics.

DVD review: Freakonomics

The directors of the documentary Freakonomics mostly succeed in their task of turning dry, analytical material into engaging viewing.

Directors: Alex Gibney, Seth Gordon, Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki and Morgan Spurlock

Can high-school students be bribed to achieve higher grades? Can a child's name be an indicator of future success? Can the painstaking duration of potty-training be curbed by throwing the little one a few encouraging M&Ms?

These are some of the questions the University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and the journalist Steven J Dubner tackle in their book Freakonomics, in the hope they could reveal greater truths about human incentives.

Regular browsers of non-fiction shelves in bookshops would have been aware of the success of Freakonomics since it was first published in 2005. Much of the book's popularity came on the back of its vibrant and chatty style, injecting wry humour into often dry subjects. Naturally, the book was met with vigorous criticism by some economists who accused it of being too simplistic and veering more towards sociology than hard numbers. But, with the book flying off the shelves, the authors fulfilled their mission in encouraging readers to think outside the box when attempting to reach or influence behaviour.

While the book was filled with insightful anecdotes and some character studies, Freakonomics did not scream "film adaptation". Then again neither did the Oscar nominated Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, which was also based on a best-selling book. However, at least the latter had the key ingredients to make a gripping narrative: a crime, a cover-up and smug criminals in suits.

The directors of Freakonomics the movie had the more challenging task of transforming rigorous economic analysis and studies into engaging viewing, and for the most part it succeeds.

This is due to the risky decision to shoot the film in an omnibus format, where acclaimed documentary directors are enlisted to take on some of the book's chapters.

The differing filmmaking styles, ranging from cold-eyed investigative journalism to animation, keep the film bouncing along at a rapid pace. In the segment "A Roshanda By Any Other Name", Spurlock (Supersize Me) casts his wry eye on people with unique names - there are reportedly more than 200 variations on the name Unique registered in California - and asks what effects it has on their future social and economic development.

In the segment "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life", Jarecki (Why We Fight) tackles the book's most controversial chapter in which it attributes the sharp drop in New York crime rates in the early 1990s to the legalisation of abortion 20 years earlier.

Spurlock benefited most from the tight time restrictions. He takes a more measured tone as opposed to his sometimes heavy-handed approach in full-length documentaries.

But Gibney's "Pure Corruption" illustrates some of the pitfalls of the omnibus format, namely an inconsistency in tone. His almost noire take on the sumo wrestling world is at odds with the lighter touch employed by his fellow filmmakers.

The film saves its best for last with "Can You Bribe A 9th Grader To Succeed!" The directors Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) follow Kevin and Urail, two ninth-grade boys participating in a study where they are financially rewarded for higher grades. Kevin is clever enough to build a tattoo gun from an electric toothbrush, but his lack of interest in school work earns him consistent "E" grades, prompting his weary mum to quip "he's enjoying ninth grade, he wants to do it again".

On the other hand, Urail can't seem to focus more than a few minutes on his homework despite his mum's determination that he completes high-school because she didn't. Their diverse experiences are responsible for the film's most gripping and touching moments.

It also highlights the power of the documentary format, which can transform dry figures and abstract arguments into compelling viewing.

Back to the top

More articles

Editor's Picks

 Hajer Almosleh, the winner of the last year's short story competition, at her home in Dubai. Duncan Chard for the National

Get involved with The National’s short-story competition

Writers have two weeks to craft a winning submission, under the title and theme "The Turning Point".

 It is believed that the desert-like planet of Tatooine is being recreated for Star Wars: Episode VII. Could that be where filming in the UAE comes in? Courtesy Lucasfilms

Could the force be with us? The search for Star Wars truth

On the hunt for the Star Wars: Episode VII set, which a growing number of people are sure is in Abu Dhabi, but no one can seem to find.

 With an estimated 18,000 comic and film fans having already paid a visit to this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con, organisers are hopeful they will have surpassed last year total, of 21,000, by its close. Jeffrey E Biteng / The National

In pictures: Middle East Film and Comic Con in Dubai

Dubai's World Trade Center was awash with people visiting this weekend’s Middle East Film and Comic Con. Here's some of our best pictures.

 Sheikh Nahyan bin Mubarak, the Minister of Culture, Youth and Community Development, presents Quincy Jones with the Abu Dhabi Festival Award as the Admaf founder Hoda Al Khamis-Kanoo applauds. Courtesy Abu Dhabi Festival.

A candid talk with Quincy Jones about the UAE, Lil Wayne and the Abu Dhabi Festival award

The Abu Dhabi Festival honoree Quincy Jones discusses his legendary career as a music producer, the return of Dubai Music Week and why he can’t handle the rapper Lil Wayne.

 Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge arrive at Wellington Military Terminal on an RNZAF 757 from Sydney on April 7, 2014 in Wellington, New Zealand. Chris Jackson / Getty Images

In pictures: Will and Kate visit Australia and New Zealand

Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge and Prince George of Cambridge are on a tour Down Under for three weeks.

 A protester gives a victory sign during clashes near Tahrir Square in Cairo in November 2011. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

Street life: humanity’s future depends on ability to negotiate and sustain public space

Negotiating our ever more crowded cities and maintaining vibrant public spaces are among the major challenges facing humanity in the coming decades.


To add your event to The National listings, click here

Get the most from The National