The 2005 best-seller made it fashionable to look for unlikely statistical explanations; watching its cowriters---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 (who gives Exit Through the Gift Shop's Rhys Ifans a run for his money), 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 legalization 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 just have to 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 grades.
A central theory of incentive comes into view quickly and clearly in these strong contributions. Alas, not every filmmaker is of the same intellectual class: Freakonomics lags in overly snarky passages by King of Kong's Seth Gordon and Super Size Me's Morgan Spurlock, turning 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.
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See also The Hot Seat