x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

DVD review: Freakonomics

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

Alex Gibney's take on the sumo wrestling world doesn't work well with the tone of the other directors' chapters in Freakonomics.
Alex Gibney's take on the sumo wrestling world doesn't work well with the tone of the other directors' chapters in Freakonomics.

Freakonomics
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.