While “for dummies” comes to mind more than once during the docu ominibus “Freakonomics,” this frisky adaptation of the Steven Levitt-Stephen Dubner bestseller on human behavior by the numbers adds up to a revelatory trip into complex, innovative ideas and altered perspectives on how people think. Pic aims to bring the book’s concepts to a wider audience — though not necessarily take them further — through the varied but eminently accessible styles of several prominent nonfiction directors. Magnolia will release the film this fall, to what will no doubt be egghead rapture.
The Levitt-Dubner book, which has sold millions of copies since its publication in 2005, filters Levitt’s pop-psych theories about statistics and economics through Dubner’s journalistic/populist interpretation. (A sequel, “Superfreakonomics,” has done similarly well.) The helmers enlisted to translate Levitt’s ideas to the screen are Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”), Morgan Spurlock (“Super Size Me”), the team of Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (“Jesus Camp,” “12th and Delaware”) and the ubiquitous/prolific Alex Gibney (“Taxi to the Dark Side,” “Casino Jack and the United States of Money”).
Tying these individual contributions together are introductory interludes helmed by Seth Gordon (“King of Kong”), which set up the individual concepts — “Cheating,” “Cause and Effect,” “Incentives” — that follow. Although they’re just serving a purpose, these transitions are not just off-puttingly flat, but also have a countervailing effect on the high style of the rest of the film. Featuring Levitt and Dubner joking their way into each issue, the sequences would have most TV viewers flipping over to the spine-tingling excitement of “Antiques Roadshow.” And since you can’t intro without an intro, it’s Gordon who comes first in the batting order.
Once “Freakonomics” gets past the overture, though, it finds a certain music. Each chapter bears its filmmaker’s distinct fingerprints; Spurlock, for instance, applies his sprinting ADD style to the racial aspects of baby-naming in “A Roshanda by Any Other Name.”
Does a child who’s given a recognizably black name, or a recognizably white name (yes, there are some), have his or her fate sealed from birth? The experts here contend that a parent who is inclined to give a problematic name probably comes from a problematic background, the primary example being a woman who wanted to name her daughter after actress Tempest Bledsoe, mistakenly named her “Temptress,” and saw the girl grow into a life of promiscuity and crime.
Gibney’s lengthier, more nuanced chapter, “Pure Corruption,” deals with cheating, using sumo wrestling as a metaphor for Wall Street. The fact that sumo and the Shinto religion are linked in the Japanese mind with purity and national identity, creating a presumption of innocence, has allowed practitioners to virtually institutionalize cheating (known as taocho) at the highest levels of the sport: In a very limited kind of trickle-down economics, matches are thrown when necessary to keep certain players in their top positions. Sumo’s facade, we are led to conclude, is similar to what allowed someone like Bernie Madoff to swindle billions; as with wrestling, people are inclined not to see what they don’t want to see, especially if it defies their preconceptions.
Gibney brings what has become his personal style to “Pure Corruption”: Seemingly digressive visuals are used in service of atmosphere rather than content, abetted by a semi-eerie soundtrack and vivid color.
By contrast, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady’s “Can You Bribe a 9th Grader to Succeed?” is far more spontaneous and guerrilla-style (relatively speaking) as it follows a Chicago U. experiment in which suburban kids were paid cash to bring up their grades. How does it work? Not as well as one might think, but as with much of “Freakonomics,” the reasons and the results yield some surprises. What Ewing and Grady provide is first-rate access, as well as some very candid portraiture.
The most memorable episode is, no surprise, the most provocative: Jarecki’s all-animated “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” pursues one of Levitt’s more widely circulated conclusions, that the legalization of abortion in 1973 led to the dramatic decrease in U.S. crime in the early ’90s. Melding state-of-the-art graphics with a potent dose of irony channeled from clips of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Jarecki renders a rather complex theorem both elegant and simple: Since unwanted children are statistically more troubled, Roe v. Wade made for a less troubled population 20 years later. He contrasts this with Romania, where abortions were outlawed and social dysfunction flourished.
There’s little in “Freakonomics” that isn’t provocative, compelling or slightly perverse, but such is its attraction. Tech credits are tops, notably the animation employed throughout.