Freakonomics -- Film Review

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Based on the surprise best-selling book by economist Steven D. Levitt and author Stephen J. Dubner, the film version of "Freakonomics" comes about as close to a franchise as a documentary can probably get. Made by an A-list team of documentary filmmakers, the film -- which received its world premiere as the closing attraction of the Tribeca Film Festival and was recently picked up for distribution by Magnolia -- will certainly attract attention. But like the source material, it's ultimately less than the sum of its parts -- an assemblage of moderately interesting human interest stories that don't carry much weight on the big screen.

"Freakonomics" is made up of four distinct chapters, each helmed by different filmmakers.

Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") applies his comically satirical style to a segment about the ramifications of baby names, with an emphasis on the disparity between those popular among whites and blacks. As we learn -- despite the lapse into criminality of a young African-American woman unfortunately named "Temptress" -- it's the socio-economic conditions, rather than the names themselves, that are the key.

Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side") handles an investigative, "60 Minutes"-style segment about the rampant corruption in the world of sumo wrestling. While this exotic milieu is certainly fascinating, the film's attempt to link the ill effects of destroying its "illusion of purity" to such financial debacles as the Bernie Madoff affair seem tenuous at best.

Eugene Jarecki ("Why We Fight") has been assigned the film's most provocative chapter, exploring the possible reasons for the dramatic drop in crime rates in the 1990s and offering a surprising explanation seemingly guaranteed to raise controversy.

Finally, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing ("Jesus Camp") explore the much discussed idea of offering financial incentives to students -- in this case, ninth graders -- to improve their grades, focusing on two young people in particular.

The film blends its thoughtful analysis with frequent doses of lighthearted humor, such as when Levitt illustrates his theory that "incentives matter" by describing how his three-year-old daughter quickly learned to game the system when offered candy rewards for going to the potty.

But despite its undeniably entertaining aspects, "Freakonomics" is ultimately too disjointed and insubstantial to make much of an impact, although the concept would seem to be ideal as a recurring feature on a television newsmagazine.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Magnolia Pictures)
Production: Chad Troutwine Films, Cold Fusion Media Group, Green Film Company, Jigsaw Productions
Directors: Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Eugene Jarecki, Seth Gordon
Screenwriters: Alex Gibney, Peter Bull, Morgan Spurlock, Jeremy Chilnick, Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing, Eugene Jarecki, Seth Gordon
Producers: Dan O'Meara, Chris Romano, Chad Troutwine
Executive producers: Peter Cerbin, Seth Gordon, Damon Martin, Michael Roban
Directors of photography: Tony Hardman, Darren Lew, Rob Van Alkemade
Editors: Douglas Blush, Tova Goodman, Sloane Klevin, Nelson Ryland, Michael Taylor
Music: Paul Brill, Michael Furjanic, Michael Wandmacher
No Rating, 85 min.