Freakonomics: Brightening Up the Dismal Science

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Magnolia Pictures

Magnolia Pictures documentary Freakonomics

Do children's names prefigure their success in life? Why do athletes cheat in the sacred sport of sumo wrestling? What caused the startling drop in crime statistics in the 1990s? Can a ninth grader be bribed to get good grades?

For that matter, can moviegoers be bribed to see a documentary about the seemingly dry discipline of economics?

The issues tackled by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and journalist Steven J. Dubner in their 2005 book Freakonomics get an omnibus ride in the new movie of the same name. A throwback to such multi-author film projects of the '60s as Seven Capital Sins, RoGoPaG and Far from Vietnam — and to the more recent 11/09/01 and Paris je t'aime — this mix of animation and documation convenes some noted nonfiction filmmakers to provide 20-minute examinations of chapters in the Levitt-Dubner book, with director Seth Gordon contributing introductory and interstitial scenes. My own study indicates that the results are a mixed bag, but well worth dipping into.

Levitt and Dubner, who can come on as engaging or super-smug but are certainly camera-friendly, set up each segment with remarks about their studies. "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life," directed by Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) force-feeds the Frank Capra metaphor into an otherwise straightforward telling of Levitt's argument, in a 2001 paper co-authored with James A. Donahue III, that the drop in 1990s crime was largely attributable to the legalizing of abortion 20 years earlier: The unwanted children most likely to have become criminals weren't around to do mischief at their peak crime-committing ages. (The Rockefeller Institute made a similar finding in a study 30 years earlier.) In "A Roshanda By Any Other Name," Morgan Spurlock, of Super-Size Me fame, and Jeremy Chitnik interview folks with unusual or unique names — in California since 1970, more than 200 variants on the name "Unique" have been registered — and learn that what you're called has no predictive influence on what you'll become.

In "Pure Corruption," Alex Gibney, who won an Oscar for Taxi to the Dark Side and has lately become a one-man doc-conglomerate with three features this year (My Trip to Al-Qaeda, Casino Jack and the United States of Money and Client 9: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer), riffs on the study of cheating in the venerated sport of sumo wrestling in Japan. The book had reported that, in crucial semifinal matches, when one rikishi (wrestler) had already qualified for the finals and the other hadn't, the underdog beat the favorite 75% of the time. Maybe money changed big fat hands; maybe the Mob was involved. But even without a financial incentive, the underdog had a sporting one: he would get to the next round, a promotion that the favorite had already attained. He had everything to gain, his opponent nothing to lose. Consider this weekend's baseball series between the Philadelphia Phillies, who have the best record in the National League, and the Atlanta Braves, fighting for a playoff spot. The Braves are starting their best pitchers, while the Phillies, resting their big guns for the imminent playoffs, are starting scrubs. That's no scandal, just common sports sense.

Fortunately for the viewer's wavering attention span, Gibney and cowriter Peter Bull go beyond the Freakonomics model to tap the insights of sports journalist Yorimasa Takeda. He investigated the charges of two former wrestlers, one a stablemaster (manager), that sumo was riddled with corruption. "To defend their claims," Gibney narrates, "the whistle blowers decided to hold a press conference. But two weeks before the press conference, both men died, in the same hospital, on the same day, from the same mysterious respiratory ailment." (Moral: If you're going to risk your reputations, and possibly your lives, by breaking a closed sport wide open, you'd better not announce your big press conference more than two weeks before it's to take place.) Shockingly, the police did not conduct an autopsy or inquire into possible foul play. "It's a very good hospital," a police spokesman said. An apprentice wrestler, Takashi Saito, also died suddenly, his body mutilated by beer-bottle cuts and blows from a metal baseball bat, in what his stablemaster described as an accidental death during practice. Gibney effectively marshals this sensational data; his segment could be the raw material for a Rikishi Godfather movie.

Best for last: the bribing-for-grades experiment. Director Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) focus on two ninth-grade boys, one white, one black, part of a group of underachievers to whom Levitt's economics department offered $50 a month if every one of their grades was a C or better, plus another $500 to the monthly winners of a lottery held among the C-plus students. Kevin Muncy, a white kid who loves skateboarding and being the class clown, is not impressed — "I don't think I would take any money for giving up my social life" — though his mother, Marcy, promises to give him another $50 reward out of her own pocket. Kevin is one of those bright teens (he creates a tattoo gun out of a toothbrush and a guitar string) who know two things: school is for losers; and if he doesn't graduate, he'll lose too. When Marcy got his report card, she saw "E, E, E, E, E. And I said, 'Oh, he's enjoying ninth grade, he wants to do it again'."

The other kid, Urail King, is a natural charmer who gets stoked when he sees the limo the winning kids get driven home in. "Are you serious, I get to ride in that?" he exclaims — like a five-year-old on Christmas morning — in perhaps the single most joyful movie moment of the year. "Aww, yes yes! You are getting straight As from me. Yes!" He imagines slipping in back and instructing the chauffeur: "'Take us home, Jigguns.' Aww, that'd be so cool!" But wanting is one thing; homework is another. Goaded by his mother Teresa, who says, "It's really important for me for him to finish school because I didn't," Urail patiently explains education in the 21st century: "Teachers are a lot more lenient, and teachers — no offense, but teachers are starting to care less." The truth is that there's less homework now, and he didn't do it. Teresa finally wheedles a confession from her son. "You didn't read the book. That's why you failed the test."

Like the new public-education docs Waiting for 'Superman' and The Lottery, to which this is an important corollary, "Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?" ends with a rolling of numbered balls in a cylinder, and the ecstasy or despondency of children whose futures should depend on something less random. We won't say how Urail does; see the movie and find out. But we will quote him. "The way I see it," the young philosopher says, "learning is like a virus. You see it's a virus that most adolescents at this age don't want to catch until later on in life." He declares his ambition to do better in tenth grade: to get all As, or at least As and Bs, or certainly Bs and Cs — anyway, all Cs. Well, check back next year. "I can promise you milk and cookies," he says, "but if the oven is broke, you just get milk."

The Ewing-Grady segment proves one theory conclusively: documentaries don't fly on figures, or even controversial arguments; they come to life with real, engaging people. And when this freakumentary hooks up with Urail King, it gets an A.