Do the Ideas of 'Freakonomics' Translate Well On Screen?

An adaptation of the bestseller hits theaters this weekend

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In 2005, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's bestseller Freakonomics became a cultural touchstone. The book showed that a host of unexplainable phenomena could be explained by counter-intuitive reasoning. Now an indie documentary inspired by the title has arrived in select theaters. Armed with five teams of directors, it aims to illustrate the same wonky ideas in film. These helmers include the talent behind Super Size Me, Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room, Jesus Camp and Taxi To The Dark Side: a who's-who of recently successful documentary filmmakers. But does the movie convey the nuance and statistical prowess of the authors? More than a few dissenting reviewers found it an unwieldy viewing experience.

  • 'Like Leafing Through a Glossy Magazine' is how The New York Times' Stephen Holdren describes it. While it has awkward transitions between some parts, it is mostly successful in using "multiple techniques like witty animation and man-on-the-street interviews to illustrate the book’s theories." Still, Holdren finds it "shallow but diverting." He also notes that the "most problematic episode," which examines falling crime rates in the 1990s, presents the theory that abortion contributed to the crime drop as as "purely speculative."
  • Surprisingly Invigorating writes Kyle Smith at The New York Post. "Seldom do documentaries set out in honest pursuit of hidden truths," but this one hits the mark aside from the "unwise" choice to hand the segments' reins over to multiple directors. "The movie is an eye-opener, a number-cruncher's corrective to the way two fields dominated by lazy thinking (cinema and journalism) analyze using whatever anecdotes confirm their biases."
  • Post-Recession, It Has Lost Appeal The book's"commercial success reflected the once-fashionable notion that economics could explain, well, everything," explains NPR's Mark Jenkins. "After two years of recession and weak recovery, that idea has lost its appeal. So the movie version of Freakonomics functions as a reasonably effective trailer, but for a book whose moment has already passed." Even with that disclaimer, Jenkins thought the "basically faithful" adaptation was a, "brisk and visually inventive treatment."
  • Fails to Grasp the Finer Points of the research and analysis that made the book such a hit in the first place, concludes Tasha Robinson at The Onion A.V. Club. Some of the mini-documentaries are patronizing and others rely on "ridiculously dramatized anecdotes." Another unfortunate part is that the documentary could have used the original authors more often: "Gordon’s personal, lively, funny link segments hint frustratingly at a Levitt-and-Dubner-focused film that might have been."
  • 'Peppy Economic Determinism Makes for Lousy Cinema' finds Ty Burr at The Boston Globe. The only part of the film that Burr appears to recommend is the segment called "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed To Succeed?" He explains: "This is the only part of 'Freakonomics' that focuses on individuals: a live-wire teenage screw-up named Urail and a baby-faced junior thug named Kevin. One succeeds, the other doesn’t, and what have we learned? That statistics don’t always tell the whole story and that the movie has unaccountably missed the real story, which is how and why these kids are falling through the cracks."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.