Blame producer Chad Troutwine, also a producer on Paris Je T’aime, for bringing together an array of talented documentary filmmakers to try to coax life into material certainly not suited to the medium of film. With his latest Freakonomics, a collection of four shorts based on the blockbuster book about the science of economics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, he’s hired the right guys and gals to do the wrong job. Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, and the team of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing all gamely attack their topics—parenting, cheaters, cause and effect, and incentives, respectively—with gusto, and unfortunately, with widely varying results. And because all these distinct directors were allowed complete creative autonomy, the scattershot Freakonomics lacks any tonal cohesion. Each segment is a standalone piece, divided by Seth Gordon’s clunky and inorganic interludes and only tangentially related to the larger whole. (In fact, Gordon’s introductory snippets—basically showy animation and brief interviews with economist Levitt and journalist Dubner sitting in a staid wood-paneled study—involving real estate, teachers, polio, and the potty training of Levitt’s daughter are downright distracting.)
First up, though, is Spurlock’s segment A Roshanda by Any Other Name, which delves into the business of naming newborns (sometimes literally: A baby name expert is interviewed) and whether that determines a person’s outcome later in life. Combining academic talking heads, quirky man-on-the-NYC-street interviews, and flashes of fictional, TV commercial-type families often set to too-cutesy jingles, Spurlock’s mini-movie is so desperate to entertain that it falls flat. (Indeed, the images of pole dancers on stage with their trashy names superimposed cartoon-like across bare breasts seems squarely aimed at the ironic hipster, film-fest crowd.)
Jarecki, surprisingly, doesn’t fare much better tackling crime in the third part, entitled It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life. Juxtaposing video game-style animation with clips from It’s a Wonderful Life and historical footage of Nicolae Ceausescu and the conditions under the Romanian dictator’s reign, Jarecki attempts to illustrate Levitt’s discovery that America’s legalization of abortion in the ‘70s led to a lowering of crime in the ‘90s. But Jarecki is faced with the same dilemma as Spurlock: how to make statistics cinematic—though using Melvin Van Peebles as the narrator is certainly an inspired bit of creativity. Both filmmakers are so fixated on visualizing and delivering information that they neglect to lay down the flesh-and-blood foundation in favor of razzle-dazzle technique.
Fortunately, in between these two duds lies Gibney’s film Pure Corruption, which explores the corruption running rampant in Japan’s sacred sport of sumo wrestling—a subject inherently cinematic since two whale-sized naked guys taking each other to the mat makes for some pretty striking images. Alternating black-and-white archival footage with recent interviews with retired champs and Japanese journos, Gibney’s segment feels like an episode of PBS’s Frontline, albeit with a Matrix-like sheen. But Gibney is also smart enough to forgo any vain attempt at making data sexy in favor of focusing on the human element. The black-and-white imagery visually highlights the sport’s shadowy enterprise, as does the low-key ominous score, which brings us closer to the main story of the newshounds who attempted to break the wrestling code of silence, even exposing the uninvestigated murders of sumo insider whistleblowers.
Perhaps Gibney’s only misstep is straying too far (a problem also at the core of his Casino Jack and the United States of Money), drawing Western parallels with the Madoff scandal and even the choice of language in The New York Times that his otherwise centered piece doesn’t need. Staying on track is definitely not a problem for Grady and Ewing, who like Gibney, focus on the folks behind the statistics and less on the cold facts themselves. Their omnibus-ending segment Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed? trails urban adolescents who are part of a University of Chicago study aimed at investigating whether paying teens to raise their grades might actually work. Taking a page from reality TV, the directors shrewdly choose to make two kids (the charismatic, Hummer-loving showboat Uriel and the apathetic skateboarder Kevin, who alleviates boredom during class by giving himself a tattoo) the stars of the show rather than trying to make the information itself cinematic. Most importantly, by following the university study as it progresses, and not the end results, their story, like their fragile subjects, has enough room to grow.