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The bestselling 'Freakonomics' loses its freak on the screen

June 16, 2010 |  7:00 am


It must have seemed like a great idea in theory: Round up All-Star documentarians like Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney and Eugene Jarecki and have them shoot mini-documentaries based on the ideas of contrarian bestseller "Freakonomics." Then put the book's authors, Steven Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, in interstitial segments. A hit documentary will surely follow.

But as the authors are fond of saying, correlation isn't causation. Just because many of these elements might be correlated with a good movie doesn't mean they give rise to one. "Freakonomics" (yes, this is a film; some readers have been surprised), which screens at the upcoming Los Angeles Film Festival ahead of its theatrical release, shows why certain kinds of books probably shouldn't travel to the movie theater. We wanted to like the film and its intellectual adventurousness. But it's hard to get too enthused.

Spurlock's entry, about the importance of baby names, seems slight and self-evident (sometimes a name affects how the world perceives you, but ultimately it's up to the person to shape their own fate). Gibney's starts promisingly, investigating the cheating rates among sumo wrestlers, but bizarrely segues into an exploration of honor and whistleblowing in Japan.

Jarecki is charged with articulating the book's most famous claim, that Roe vs. Wade prompted the murder rate to drop 20 years after the ruling, when many of the unborn would have reached the age of criminal behavior. But it's explained with so little style that the theory almost seems obvious and unsexy. It's also muddled by call-outs to other theories of the crime drop, which here seem just as reasonable as the Roe vs. Wade factor, making the authors' bold counterintuitive theory of the book unpersuasive.

The final installment, Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing's film about whether you can bribe children into better behavior (it's centered on an experiment in which ninth-graders were handed cash if they upped their grades) is a little more subtle and also tells a better story. (The children depicted are decently rounded characters). But the conclusions are too mixed to be meaningful, and there's no real depth to the investigation -- there is, for example, little said about the long-term effects of conditioning a child to receive money every time he learns.

The underlying problem in all this is (as you probably suspected the second you heard about the project) is that it's not easy to bring an idea-driven book to the screen. On the page these arguments can seem provocative because Dubner and Levitt are eager to explore every crevice of potential disagreement. And even when they don't wash away all doubts, their rhetorical brio often makes up for it. But it's much harder to present arguments and counterarguments in a documentary. And rhetorical brio rarely obtains when those putting it forward are not writers but talking heads. You're left with boiled-down, whitewashed versions of big ideas that, as expressed here, don't seem too shocking or even convincing.

There's been a lot of talk recently about a different idea-driven book coming to the screen. "Moneyball,", Michael Lewis' treatise on baseball statistics, is being given a dramatic makeover from Hollywood storytellers like Aaron Sorkin and Steven Zallian. Critics have asked if that treatment could dilute the book's intellectual power, and it might, but at least it will shape it into a story, something noticeably absent here.

That suggests its own hypothesis. Normally, when a novel is being adapted into a film, screenwriters are wise to draw from their literary source. When it comes to nonfiction, however, it may be that it's best to deviate from it. In this regard, at least, the counterintuitive theory proves correct.

--Steven Zeitchik


Photo: Freakonomics logo. Credit: Magnolia Pictures.

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