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I'll admit from the off that I was skeptical regarding this documentary
ever since I first heard it was in production. Having read the book, I
felt that what made it enjoyable could not really be transposed onto
film. Economics, being such a science of numbers, even in its
freakonomic form, does not really lend itself to being narrated to
Going beyond this limitation, I reckon the film could have still been better, had it found a unity of tone. Unfortunately, as several different teams were involved with making each of the four chapters, the final experience is heavily fragmented and unlike the book, which kept its pacing throughout, the film is all over the place.
The first part basically looks at whether there is some sort of correlation between a person's first name and the path one goes through life. A potentially amusing segment, it proves to be in search of a comic sense it never arrives at and the examples taken from the book appear wholly unrealistic and not fully integrated.
The second part is quite dark and brings forth a sort of investigation into the Sumo world and allegations of match-rigging. Contextualized in the sacrosanct culture that defines the sport, this exploration of truth, justice and fair-play toys around with big words and complex issues, its reach ultimately exceeding its grasp.
The third part references dear old Romania and our beloved dictator's policy of ruling abortions illegal - a subject matter dealt with artistically in the well-known "4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days". I'm not quite sure the parallel proves a point, because it tries to show how the opposite policy, legalizing abortion in the US following Roe v Wade, caused a sudden, steep reduction in crime in the early nineties. Ironically enough, the generation Ceausescu (the dictator referenced above) forcibly gave birth to, so to say, caused his downfall. Yet, I think this segment points out an interesting observation, even if one could get distracted by the overly dramatic narration.
The last part is an on-film experiment about trying to find an incentive to make kids get better grades in high-school by offering financial rewards. Unfortunately, the set-up lacks any authentic feel and implicitly does not help support the case that the authors tried to convey.
So overall it would seem that almost all segments have at least one fundamental issue that they don't tackle very well. At times the film livens due to the interesting nature of the facts being presented, but on the whole it's still shy of a successful venture. Even while reading the book I felt that the novelty seeped out of it before I had reached its end and this feeling was only exacerbated in the documentary.
I don't think this is the place to debate the correctness of the research Levitt and Dubner have done or their conclusions, because the film certainly does not offer a strong basis to work on. The book has a scientific feel to it, conferring at least a sense of objectivity and, more importantly, finding the levity to show that it does not assume to offer absolute answers. The documentary, on the other hand, loses sight of this and never manages to find its proper balance.
I never read the book, but know that it is very popular. The movie does
a bad job at selling the book.
Though, I would still be up for reading the book after having watched the movie. This is because the fault of the movie was only partially due to the content of the book. The movie tries to move along at quick pace at the beginning. It has a very catchy poppy kind of theme to it and talks about a real practical use of the study of economics.
After those 5 minutes, things seem to go terribly south. We get this long and fact lacking piece about sumo wrestling. There is an interesting statistic at the beginning of the segment about how sumo wrestlers will lose matches when there is no real loss to them in order to get payback in the future. The rest of it is exposition about how all the super smart economists are using these fancy numbers and statistics to give very good proof that sumo wrestlers are cheating. I would have liked to hear more about these statistics and the reasoning behind why its very likely that we're cheating. This smug movie instead insults our intelligence and passes by this thinking that we would be too stupid to understand it. The narrator goes on about assassinations of whistle blowers... blala yada yada. I started to lose interest at this point.
There was a part that had an interesting look at why abortion may be one of the key reasons of the drop in crime in the 90's. This really peaked my interest and some convincing figures where given. I liked this segment and am eager to read more about this.
After that is a boring long Good Morning America-esque expose on paying kids to get better grades in school. The kids are annoying, the concept is annoying, the results are paltry, and it all seems pretty meaningless by the time you get to the end of it. This was the segment that really killed the movie. It felt like it went on for an hour, although I'm sure it didn't. This reality show garbage really shouldn't be in any kind of movie that calls itself a documentary.
Based upon the bestselling book written by steven Levitt and Stephen
Dubner, Freakonomics the film is an omnibus of shorts, where different
filmmakers adapt a segment of the book for their respective sections,
and then putting them all together into a feature length documentary.
In some ways, it could have been directed by an invisible hand rather
than the "big name" documentarians of today and probably still come up
on tops, since the subject matter is rather contentious at best, and in
my opinion, a little bit too stretched.
For my limited understanding of basic economic principles from school, there's hardly any straightforward demand and supply theories that can be applied by anyone not too well versed with various theorems and hypotheses that Economics deal with, though you need not have intimate knowledge of the subject in order to view the film. I thought it was more of a sociology experiment, since there are many of topics here that deal with the basic human condition on social principles rather than an economic standpoint, and in many ways, through its touted in depth analysis, it's more akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole.
It adapts from chapters in the book such as discovering cheating as applied to teachers and delving deep into the closed community of sumo wrestlers, the patterns that emerge with the naming, or misnaming of children, and how bribery can be used as an incentive to succeed. You can imagine how economics can be applied to these, so perhaps it's quite apt that the concepts discussed are freakish to begin with. Economics theories and principles are filled with plenty of assumptions and "ceteris paribus"es, so in twisting some of these assumptions, what you get is the content as explained in Levitt and Dubner's book, which are adapted by the likes of Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Rachel Grady and Heldi Ewing (Jesus Camp), and put all together with various transitional, brief topics by Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).
Perhaps the only economics related idea here is how the lack of information and irrational choices by consumers have led to skewed markets, which goes to show the sneaky arsenal of tactics that real estate agents have up their sleeves to manipulate markets to their advantage. But while you shouldn't expect economics to fit into most of the subject matter discussed here, the concept that gets explained are incredibly sexy, and brought out through eye- catching methods, sometimes with the use of effective animation like a lubricant to force ideas down and eventually nailing that square peg into the round hole.
What's more important is the fact that we cannot deny the little things everyone does to get ahead, where the objective is to use whatever means possible to get a desired outcome. The teacher and results segment remind one about how school ranking pressures here become an obsession, with results to the detriment of those who somehow fall by the sidelines, and how an elite community help each other to stay afloat for various benefits and back-rubbing. It's human nature to seek out competitive advantage, and one constant in sitting through the various topics and scenarios presented, is how data mining (a term I got introduced to when in varsity) has that ability to present a wealth of information that can be used to analyze for gaining that upper hand. Businesses use it, and so does the many researchers of topics in Freakonomics.
You won't become an expert or a whiz after viewing this, but what it'll open your eyes and mind to, are the plenty of behind the scenes shenanigans that even the seemingly innocent industry or individual get up to, that indeed like the tagline of the film says everything has a hidden side to them. It's really more than meets the eye, and presented here in a very alluring manner.
Freakonomics is one of those films that tries to make a complex subject accessible to a mainstream audience. Here, there subject in question is economics, and how it is everywhere. Although trying to reach a wider audience in a fun way we can relate to is admirable, it can't avoid a patronizing tone. Still, there are lots of interesting parts to this documentary. It's split into a number of sections, with each section helmed by a familiar documentary filmmaker. This allows for a number of fun and interesting style to be put on display. As we delve into the world of economics, this all feels like a few great bits in an overambitious whole. Each segment has a fascinating topic, and one that could be explored at full length. Corruption and murder in sumo wrestling, how our names affect our lives, and how abortion may have helped to reduce the crime rate. All great subjects that are handled with kid gloves. It has inspired me to look into further detail about some things, but I wonder if the ideas and thoughts provoked will last a long time.
This isn't really a documentary. A few of the chapters from the book
are presented in this film. The way the issues are presented usually
involve first Levitt and Dubner speaking about the issue interspersed
with various imagery and animation. Some archival footage is used.
Particularly when the topic addresses famous historical events. Each
segment will also have actors re-enacting events or acting out original
scenes to present the topic visually. There are also other experts or
people who call themselves experts (like an "expert" in baby names)
talking about the issue. Finally there is some footage of actual people
either discussing personal experiences, or in the case of the high
school students, the students themselves living their lives. Although
even this seems staged at points.
It seems they used a lot of flashy graphics and various forms of presentation to cover up the fact that this film is ultimately Levitt, Dubner and the narrator just talking generally about the issues covered in the book. I'm a fan of the podcast so if this film had just been them talking and nothing else I'd still have liked it. But there is a sense of lacking an opportunity in creating something new on film. All the colorful imagery doesn't bring anything new to the table.
The film doesn't cover the entire book. I haven't read it in years but one of the more important topics to me was about the drug dealers which wasn't in the film.
What I found really lacking, beyond the visual or the missing chapters, is that they didn't really go into detail with anything. They vaguely reference statistics, but hardly show any. They make off handed comments about important concepts that they don't spend any time on. Two of the most important themes of the entire work, causation vs. causality, and the power of incentive are hardly discussed beyond the immediate topic. For example while they note in the film that people often mistake correlation with causation, and that finding cause is very difficult, they don't spend a second actually explaining why cause is difficult to ascertain (except that it isn't immediately apparent). Day one of a social science course is going to identify the difficulty or impossibility of defining cause. Levitt and Dubner do not mention that while statistics and economics in the scope of numbers is natural science, their application in Freakonomics is social science, and all the stats in the world won't necessarily prove cause in social science.
Until 2005, the words 'economics' and 'fun' were unlikely to be found
in the same sentence. Economics was seen as a dry, technical,
mathematical discipline: the preserve of driven businessmen, greedy
bankers and staid Treasury officials. Fun was its opposite: spontaneous
enjoyment available to regular people.
The publication of Freakonomics in 2005 changed all that. Steven Levitt, a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, and Stephen Dubner, a New York Times journalist, somehow gave economics popular appeal. So far the book has sold over four million copies worldwide. Last year, a sequel, Superfreakonomics, was published and there is also a Freakonomics blog linked to the New York Times website.
Wherever there's an unexpected publishing hit, you can be sure that a bandwagon will soon follow. In 2007 alone we had Steven Landsburg's More Sex is Safer Sex, Tyler Cowen's Discover Your Inner Economist and Diane Coyle's The Soulful Science. Nor is the fun confined to the paperback stands. Earlier this month there was even an international academic symposium on 'economics made fun in the face of economic crisis' at Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
The film follows the structure of the book with chapters loosely linked by the broad approach of the authors. There is little sense of narrative beyond that. However, one innovation is that different chapters are made by different directors including Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) and Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).
Freakonomics the movie is worth watching for two reasons. As with any cultural phenomenon, whether it is The X-Factor or Strictly Come Dancing (aka Dancing with the Stars outside the UK), it is interesting to ask why it catches the popular imagination. This is particularly true when the subject matter is or at least was widely seen as incredibly dull.
Understanding the approach to economics taken in the film also helps reveal some deeper truths. It shows the limitations of contemporary economics and can even help viewers understand fashionable policy initiatives such as the attempt to 'nudge' people to behave in a particular way.
The first thing that viewers of the Freakonomics movie are likely to notice it that has little time for the traditional subject matter of the discipline. There is no room for discussion of business, supply-and- demand curves, and certainly no mathematics. Instead it covers such subjects as parenting, naming babies, cheating at exams, corruption among Sumo wrestlers and crime. If anything, such topics would normally be classified as sociology rather than economics.
From the authors' perspective, what makes their book economics is their approach to these subjects. Their concerns are unashamedly practical. They want to use economic tools to help improve human behaviour in all these areas.
Levitt and Dubner's mantra, and indeed that of contemporary market economics generally, is that 'humans respond to incentives'. Such incentives are often financial but they can also be moral and social. In each case the authors ask themselves what incentives would work best to improve outcomes:
Is bribing toddlers with M&Ms a good way to potty train them? Should pupils be paid to perform better at school? If so, at what age and exactly how? Does choosing a particular name for a baby improve its life chances? For example, through the choice of name alone, is a Brendan likely to do better than a Deshawn? Both the attractions and limitations of this form of economics should already have started to become clear. The subject matter of Freakonomics relates to everyday interests and concerns. It is about practical questions that confront individuals and parents as well as policymakers.
In many ways it is better seen as a form of self-help than economics in the traditional sense. It is an attempt to find better, supposedly more scientific, ways to improve the behaviour of errant individuals. It says little, if anything, about traditional key economic questions such as how to organise production, how to raise productivity or how to create a more prosperous society.
Although the Freakonomics approach is not entirely mainstream it is not marginal either. Gary Becker, also a professor of economics at the University of Chicago, won the Nobel Prize for economics in 1992 for work on similar questions to those raised in the film. Although his work was not aimed at the general public, his concerns were comparable to those of Levitt and Dubner's.
Even mainstream economics, although more concerned with business than Freakonomics, suffers from many of the same weaknesses. Its focus is largely on individual consumer behaviour, its approach is ahistorical and it has little to say about the process of production.
Freakonomics the film, like the book, is entertaining and sometimes thought-provoking. Although it is more self-help than traditional economics it shares many of the weaknesses of more serious works in the discipline.
Its focus on individual behaviour also lends itself to a preoccupation with manipulating individual choices. That is where Freakonomics becomes truly freaky.
University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times
journalist Stephen Dubner wrote the popular book taking an
unconventional look at the world using the science of economics. This
movie takes the ideas from the book into several different sections.
The vast variation does tend to make the movie somewhat meandering and disjointed. Some sections are more interesting than others. It's not a natural narrative that builds to a climax. It's basically one study case after another. The most controversial section is probably the abortion one. Although my personal favorite is the sumo wrestlers. What's there not to love about sumo wrestlers. Sometimes it's a little dumb down but other times it is fascinating.
I've read the book, which was indubitably very interesting, even if it
some claims seemed a tad far-fetched. The documentary, however, has
several problems. Firstly, each chapter of the book can EASILY--
actually, SHOULD-- be a documentary of its own. The data used to back
up the claims is fairly poor and weak, which is a shame, because some
of the ideas really are interesting to explore. But with so little time
devoted to them, they don't seem credible. The problem with this
documentary and the book is that it makes no effort to refute any
counterarguments-- and there are MANY possible ones. It is incredibly
easy to lie with statistics and spin numbers to work for you.
Even in terms of entertainment value, it was mediocre, at best. To be frank, I found Dubner and Levitt's commentary extremely annoying. I felt like they were lecturing first graders. The way information was presented in neat little elementary-school-like "what-we-learned- from-this" packages was another annoyance for me.
The main problem with a documentary that attempts to make an argument is that you have to do it in a way that does not make the viewers feel manipulated, which is very difficult (Michael Moore, for instance, sucks at it). And one such as this does not make a solid case for any of its claims and left me with a huge pile of questions. Even if what they say really is true, I can't buy it, because the evidence is presented in such a slapdash, half-baked kind of way.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
In my opinion, Freakonomics works a lot better if it was a documentary TV Show series like 2003's Penn & Teller's Bullsh*t because it's focus on a lot of different topics ranging from Sumo Wrestlers to naming your child. Putting all these topics in one hour and 33 minutes isn't enough to cover all the subjects, with its brief running time. Honestly, these unrelated topics don't even match well together with multiply directors with different styles of filmmaking. It felt like they were trying to put their small pieces into one giant puzzle and the pieces don't fit. The tone of the film change from silly segment to serious segment in a blink of an eye that the film felt like bi-polar economist. The film is all over the place. I don't think the director (Heidi Edwing) in charge of putting these smaller films together did a good job. I really didn't know what was keeping these topics, together. It felt like the big thread connector, 'Economics' was missing in some pieces. It look and sound more like sociology or criminology at best. It felt rush, and directionless. Based on the book, 'Freakonomics' by economist Steven D. Levitt and writer Stephen J. Dubner. The book is a collection of 'economic' articles written by Levitt. The book is covered in six chapters of different social topics. The movie only covers four of these chapters, leaving out the topics of Chapter 2: Information control as applied to the Ku Klux Klan and real-estate agents & Chapter 3: The economics of drug dealing, including the surprisingly low earnings and abject working conditions of crack cocaine dealers. In the 2005's "Revised and Expanded Edition" of 'Freankonomics', the Khan part was considerably too exaggerated and left out of the film for that reason. Chapter 2 was merge into topics into smaller sequences between the bigger pieces. These smaller sequences are directed by Seth Gordon of 2007's King of Kong's fame, but it felt like rambling than anything really important. Like the potty training sequence, it was just a turd to watch. Another sequence, I didn't like was the 'Roshanda By Any Other Name' which is Chapter 6 in the book. Super-Size Me, Morgan Spurlock's investigation of the possible implications of names, especially racial names, in how personal development and social advancement. Common names are more liking to have success than exotic foreign names in America. The comedy timing in this sequence was a bit off. I didn't find, myself laughing as much as others. There was also a great chapter similar to it, call Chapter 5: The negligible effects of good parenting on education. They kinda merge Chapter 5 with 'It's Not Always a Wonderful life' AKA Chapter 4. 'It's Not Always A Wonderful Life', narrated by Melvin Van Peebles and directed by 'Why we fight' director, Eugene Jarecki. This is the most controversial segment in the film. It explores the theory that the increase of birth control & abortion has led to a decline in the urban crime rate in the US during the mid- to late 1990s. The movie states that 1973 US Supreme Court case, Roe v. Wade, in the US permitted people to have legal abortions, leading more wanted children with better upbringings than ever before. This also key into 'Can You Bribe A 9th Grader To Succeed!' AKA Chapter 1: Director Rachel Grady documents an experiment in Chicago, Illinois to determine the efficacy of paying students to achieve higher grades. The whole sequence was annoying as they got some of the worst kids ever to do this study and the results are meaningless. So, it felt like a waste of time. Gees, it was hard to get through that. Chapter 1 also explain in Director Alex Gibney's exploration of the Japanese concept of yaochō match fixing in Sumo wrestling. Yaocho is when a secured position tournament fighter allows the other person to win to get in the tournament to ignored getting hurt or allow his buddy to get a win to look better. That was probably the best sequence in the movie, but so out of place. In my opinion, this topic deserve a 2 hour documentary of its own. It doesn't really relate to any of the other topics, but it relates more to economics than most of the film. The various topics and scenarios presented kinda loses sight of what they were presenting and never really manages to find its proper balance. Overall: The movie does a bad job at selling the book, but the use of trendy pop culture, quirky characters, special graphic effects, and interesting topics made it entertaining. So get your freak on!
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
I went into this movie hoping to learn about economics. This movie
taught me about incentives but it didn't do it well. It included many
things that it did not need to. In the sumo wrestling part, I learned
more about sumo wrestling than cheating.
If you read this, you won't have to watch the movie: - African American names get called to job interviews 33% less than white names. Put some thought into naming your child because they will be judged by it.
- People will always cheat.
- There are patterns in cheating and given enough data, you will find that pattern to catch the cheater.
- In 1989, crime dropped in America by 50% because abortion was legalized in 1973. This made less unwanted babies get born. Unwanted babies are more likely to turn into criminals because of how they are raised.
- Incentives matter. Money is not always the best incentive and it won't always work if someone already has everything they want.
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