Freakonomics: The Movie

2011-03-18 15:24
What it's about:

Based on the bestselling book of the same name by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics is a collection of five short documentaries, each of which present real-world scenarios filtered through economic theories.

What we thought:

Having not read the book, I wasn't quite sure what to expect from Freakonomics: The Movie. Even after seeing the film, I still can't tell you what it's all about. OK, yes, I understand that it refers to applying economic theories to real-world situations (apparently; I know about as much about economics as I do about cricket - next to nothing) but, if the film is any indication, it really is much ado about nothing.

I did, for all intents and purposes, actually enjoy the film. Most of the segments were charming, mildly informative and fun in a silly kind of way. It's just that the subjects they addressed were slight to the point of being almost entirely insubstantial and, while I may not know much about economics, I always assumed that the subject was more complicated than what is presented here. 

The first mini-doc tried to explain how real estate agents might not always have your best interests at heart and it was no surprise to find that it lasted barely a couple of minutes and hardly seemed like a feature at all.

The second dealt with the naming of children and what that tells you about the kind of people that they become. Not a whole lot as it turns out. No surprises there, but it was presented in a way that was funny and flippant enough to make it enjoyable despite itself.

The next segment is anything but light as it deals with corruption within the world of sumo wrestling and Japanese culture in general. Oddly enough, this is by far the least impressive of the mini-documentaries as it seems like it deserved a whole documentary on its own but, taken in this context, it's far too serious and has far too little to do with economics to work as part of this film.

It doesn't help that the sumo segment was so long but the film does get back on track with probably its most successful portion. This time round the correlation between economics and an actual real-world issue is far more logical as Levitt and Dubner try to show that the legalisation of abortion in the US in the 1970s led to a drop in the 1990s. Though I'm not entirely convinced by the conclusions they reach, it is a very interesting and fairly novel idea and it is presented in a way that fits the overall film far better than the sumo wrestling segment did. Its use of It's a Wonderful Life to make its point was especially clever and rather poignant to boot.

Finally, the film ends off with a particularly irreverent experiment of whether offering financial rewards to students would cause them to do better. The results are both unsurprising and very unconvincing but the actual experiment is good fun, thanks to the personalities involved and the snappy, funny presentation. 

Taken as a whole, Freakonomics is a mixed bag and it really doesn't amount to much but I mildly recommend it as a diverting and occasionally interesting way to spend an hour and a half.

A charming, mildly informative and fun set of documentary features that attempts to use economics to explain why the world is the way it is.
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