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Less Than the Sum of its Parts

Rating: 2.5 out 5 stars.

Freakonomics, University of Chicago economist Steven D. Levitt and New York Times reporter Stephen J. Dubner’s a non-fiction book built around unlikely connections between economic theory and real-world problems, became a surprise bestseller, selling more than four million copies since its release five years ago. Each chapter focuses on a different problem or issue rather than a unifying, overall problem, a structure Seth Gordon (The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters), who shot the introductory, transitional, and closing sequences, borrowed for the documentary adaptation.

Documentary filmmaker Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) handles the first segment, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name” in a light, seriocomic style. The segment explores the connection between names, specifically African-American names, and socio-economic status, using a presumably apocryphal about a young, spelling-challenged, African-American woman who inadvertently names her daughter “Temptress” instead of “Tempest” (for “Cosby Show” actress Tempest Bledsoe).

Spurlock dutifully brings out Harvard professor and cultural segregation expert Roland G. Fryer to discuss name differences between African Americans and white Americans. Fryer argues that the socio-economic status of parents and related factors are more determinative of the future socio-economic success of their children then the names they chose for those children. Another professor, citing an experiment involving identical resumes with different names, suggests that names do have a real-world impact. African-American sounding names received 33% fewer responses than those with white-sounding names.

Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States of Money, Taxi to the Darkside, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) steps in to direct the second segment, “Pure Corruption,” an examination of cheating in sumo wrestling. Leaning primarily, if not exclusively, on Levitt’s analysis of wrestling data, Gibney attempts to prove that cheating, hidden under the guise of centuries-old tradition, conventions, rituals, and other cultural forces, became institutionalized over time and, just as importantly, a danger to anyone who tried to expose that corruption in the media.

Not content to prove Levitt’s point about cheating in sumo wrestling, Gibney’s segment also takes on police corruption and whistleblowers that is overlong given the structure, but also too superficial. It’s a that that could be the subject of its own documentary, but instead overstays its welcome by 15-20 minutes.

Documentarian Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight, The Trials of Henry Kissinger) takes on probably the most controversial chapter in Levitt and Dubner’s book, the unexpected drop in crime rates in the early to mid 1990s. Using excerpts from Frank Capra’s classic It’s a Wonderful Life, animated characters, pie charts, graphs, and backgrounds, Jarecki takes an overly light, slight approach to the answer. After accepting the contribution of changing police strategies, a larger police force, gun control, and reduced use and abuse of crack cocaine, Levitt found a startling answer for the remainder: legalized abortion.

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp) round out Freakonomics’ with "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?", a look at a University of Chicago experiment involving 900 students and a monthly incentive of $50 for at-risk students who raise their grades above C (some, if not all, are failing at least one subject). The segment focuses on two students, Kevin Muncy and Urial King, with mixed results. While both students seem eager at first to participate in the program, putting in the work to raise their grades proves problematic.

Despite a 94-minute running time — four segments, and the transitional sequences — a dissenting voice is nowhere to be found. Either for length reasons or simply to indulge Levitt and Dubner, other economists aren’t interviewed. Moviegoers without economic degrees are expected to take every argument at face value, when a more skeptical attitude might be warranted. To be fair, that’s a problem with the running time and the format more than anything else. A PBS series, for example, could devote an entire segment to a particular question, not just 15-20 minutes. That’s exactly what Levitt and Dubner should do for Superfreakonomics, their bestselling 2009 follow-up to Freakonomics.