Freakonomics Review

Although it’s an engaging book, written with a great deal of wit, I’ve always found myself responding skeptically to some of the key insights in Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt’s Freakonomics.  Like many pop social scientific books, its argument–that unexplained phenomena might be understood once we identify the hidden incentives of the key players–never quite held together for me across all chapters.  And in some cases, their conclusions seemed to be based on some pretty fantastic logical leaps.   But given the documentary all-star team, including Morgan Spurlock, Alex Gibney, Eugene Jarecki, and Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing, lined up by Seth Gordon to direct the various segments of the film (official website; IMDB page), I couldn’t resist watching, in part because the film is now available through video-on-demand, several weeks before it is due to arrive in local theaters (if it shows up at all).

As Dan Kois of The Village Voice observes, much of what makes Freaknomics engaging as a movie is the opportunity to watch several top-notch documentarians treating Dubner and Levitt’s analysis.  Although I’m reluctant to share his sneering remark that the sequences resemble a “quartet of uneven TV pilots posing as a full-length documentary” (I guess movies are still better than TV, even when that line is increasingly fuzzy), Kois describes the tone of each sequence relatively well.  Spurlock’s “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” plays to the filmmaker’s advantages with getting candid, humorous on-the-street interviews in confirming the unsurprising conclusion that names have racial and class associations that shape how they will be perceived in the job market.  Gibney’s section, which treats corruption in sumo wrestling, is perhaps the most insightful, especially when he draws connections between the incentives to throw a sumo match and the “trust” placed in Wall Street executives such as Bernie Madoff that allowed him to build an illusive financial empire.

Like Kois, I also found myself uncovinced–less convinced than ever, in fact–by the argument in the film’s third segment, Jarecki’s “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life,” which argues that the legalization of abortion, through Roe v Wade in 1973, is responsible for the dramatic drops in crime rates during the early 1990s, presumably when the unborn would have been teenagers or young adults.  The logical problems with this segment have always bothered me, in particular the conflation of causation and correlation: can we assume that there is a causal relationship here or is it just a coincidence?  Worse, the film dismisses, almost as an afterthought, some of the race and class critiques that have been brought up against Levitt and Dubner’s argument.  If the film provides them with a chance to engage seriously with those concerns, they certainly don’t take advantage.

Grady and Ewing’s segment, which traces the role of financial incentives in getting students to improve their grades is probably the strongest, in part because it has the strongest narrative component, but also because of their talents as observational filmmakers willing to let things happen in front of the camera, their openness (perhaps) to alternative conclusions.  Their segment follows two students from a Chicago high school who are participating in a program that promises $50 to any student who pulls all of his or her grades to a C or higher.  One clearly bright student who improvises a tattoo wand out of an electric toothbrush and a needle continues to struggle, while another, seduced by the opportunity to ride in a Hummer limo, seems to to turn things around.  Their segment seems to remain agnostic on whether these financial incentives work (and on what amount might be enough to encourage more students to buy in), making it, by far, the most circumspect and reflective of the film, in some places working against what seemed like the film’s barely submerged smugness about incentives and causality.

That being said, the distribution practices associated with the Freakonomics movie have been a fascinating study of film promotion and the incentives that drive people to make choices about when and where (and how much they are willing to pay) to see a movie.  Although the movie has been available on-demand for several weeks at $10.99, I waited until last night, when it was $6.99, I think, to watch.  This may have been partially deliberate: $10.99 is a lot of money to pay just to see a movie, even if it allows me to jump into the conversation about the movie a bit earlier than others might.  I’d considered going to see a movie in theaters last night, but tired after a long day of travel, it seemed more convenient to watch at home (plus my fiancee wants to see The Social Network, giving me an additional incentive to wait to see that one).  But as Catherine Rampell reports, Magnolia, in the spirit of the film, has continued to play with the distribution timing for Freakonomics, in part by making it available both on-demand and through iTunes before it hits theaters, an experiment that was likely possible only because of the Freakonomics brand, which includes a bestselling book and a New York Times column, that relied on viewers’ familiarity with the material.  This branding also is arguably supplemented by the all-star cast of documentary filmmakers, which were a bigger draw for me, at least.  Magnolia also toyed with a one-time only pay-what-you-want screening, allowing people to pay anywhere from one penny to $100 to see the film in ten cities (as long as you fill out a social media survey).  The average ticket price ended up being about $1, but, as you might expect, a large number of people out of the 5,000 or so tickets sold never showed.  Finally, as Rampell notes, the film might also lend itself to any number of re-cuts, given its segmented, fragmentary nature.  This isn’t new, of course.  There are countless examples of omnibus films and documentaries that lend themselves to being reappropriated, but the economic logic at work here may allow us to be more self-conscious about how this process works.

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