The 2005 bestseller made it fashionable to look for unlikely statistical explanations; watching its co-writers – amiable, buttoned-down prof Steven Levitt and sarcastic journo Stephen Dubner – tease and parry in the movie version, it seems like they’re having tons of fun. But despite a roster of off-kilter documentarians each directing an episode, Freakonomics only partly delivers the sense of traipsing into uncharted territory (which the text supplied on nearly every page).
The good stuff comes near the end: slyly narrated by Melvin Van Peebles, Eugene Jarecki’s fully animated segment takes us through the book’s most provocative notion – that the 1990s dip in NYC crime wasn’t due to Giuliani’s strong-arm tactics, but to the legalisation of abortion in 1973, thus limiting the number of at-risk children who were even born. As Jarecki cuts between footage of It’s a Wonderful Life, pregnant mothers and Romania (you must see it), your jaw hangs open. That short is followed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s equally engaging, warmly funny tale of a bizarre Chicago experiment, in which ninth-graders were paid cash to get good marks.
A central theory of incentive comes into view clearly in these strong contributions. Alas, not every director is of the same intellect: overly snarky passages by The King of Kong’s Seth Gordon and Super Size Me’s Morgan Spurlock turn subjects of potty training and baby names into cutesy, skippable chapters. Then again, any movie that triggers creative thought in its audience can’t be that bad a deal. Joshua Rothkopf