You will be redirected back to your article in seconds


A frisky adaptation of the Steven Levitt-Stephen Dubner bestseller on human behavior by the numbers.

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.

Popular on Variety


Production: A Magnolia Pictures release of a Chad Troutwine presentation, in association with Cold Fusion Media and Green Films Co. (International sales: Celsius Entertainment, London.) Produced by Troutwine, Dan O'Meara, Chris Romano. Executive producers, Michael Roban, Paul Fiore, Jay Rifkin, Damon Martin, Seth Gordon. Co-producers, Rafi Chaudry, Peter Cerbin, Hilary Carr. Co-executive producers, Stephen J. Dubner, Steven D. Levitt. Based on the book by Stephen Dubner, Steven Levitt.

Crew: Reviewed at Tribeca Film Festival (closer), April 30, 2010. Running time: 86 MIN. Introduction and Transitional Segments Produced by Mary Rohlich. Directed, written by Seth Gordon. Camera (color), Bradford Whitaker; editor, Luis Lopez; graphics and animation, Lopez, Clay Tweel. A Roshonda by Any Other Name Produced by Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock, Joanna Chejade-Bloom. Directed by Morgan Spurlock. Written by Jeremy Chilnick, Spurlock. Camera (color), Daniel Marracino; editor, Tova Goodman; music, Jon Spurney; sound, Brian Fish; sound designer, Lew Goldstein. Pure Corruption Produced by Peter Bull, Alex Gibney, Alexandra Johnes. Co-producer, Sloane Klevin. Directed by Alex Gibney. Written by Peter Bull, Alex Gibney. Camera (color), Darren Lew, Junji Aoki, Ferne Pearlstein; editor, Sloane Klevin; music, Human; animation, Brady E. Poulsen; associate producer, Michiko Toyoma. It's Not Always a Wonderful Life (Animated) Produced by Eugene Jarecki, Kathleen Fournier. Directed, written by Eugene Jarecki. (Color); editor, Doug Blush; music, Peter Nashel, Pete Miser; production designer, Joe Posner; sound designer, Bill Chesley. Narrator: Melvin Van Peebles. Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed? Directed by Rachel Grady, Heidi Ewing. Camera (color), Tony Hardmon, Rob Vanalkemade; editors, Michael Taylor, Sloane Klevin; music, Paul Brill, Ionic Furjanic; associate producers, Christina Gonzalez, Craig Atkinson.

More Scene

  • Anne Hathaway Modern Love

    Anne Hathaway Talks Mental Health Awareness, Playing a Bipolar Woman on Amazon's 'Modern Love'

    In Amazon Prime’s upcoming “Modern Love,” Anne Hathaway sheds light on an important facet of living with mental health issues, playing a bipolar woman who struggles with dating. “We’re all becoming more sensitive, wiser and more cognizant of gentility, and especially emotional gentility. I think those conversations are starting to happen. And I think the desire [...]

  • Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman, Charlize Theron.

    Charlize Theron Could Win Second Oscar for Playing Megyn Kelly in 'Bombshell'

    Charlize Theron walked on stage before a screening of “Bombshell” at West Hollywood’s Pacific Design Center on Sunday night and announced to the crowd, “I’m about to s— myself.” The Oscar winner had good reason to be nervous. The screening of the Jay Roach-directed drama about the fall of Fox News boss Roger Ailes was [...]

  • Charlize Theron speaks at the GEANCO

    Charlize Theron Talks 'White Privilege,' Growing Up During Apartheid in South Africa

    Charlize Theron, during an onstage discussion with her “Gringo” costar David Oyelowo about philanthropy at Thursday’s annual fundraiser for Nigerian children’s educational and health program GEANCO, said she was a beneficiary of “white privilege” while growing up in Apartheid-torn South Africa. “I obviously am a white person who benefited from my white privilege,” Theron said [...]

  • Lyliana Wray, Sam Ashe Arnold, Miya

    ‘Are You Afraid of the Dark’ Revival Team on Living Up to the Series’ Legacy

    The 2019 revival of “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” centers around the Carnival of Doom, a place that star Jeremy Ray Taylor (“It Chapter Two”) describes as “beautiful on the outside, but…in the middle of it, there are definitely dark secrets. Variety caught up with the young star during a carnival-themed celebration at Row DTLA [...]

  • Charlize Theron'The Addams Family' film premiere,

    Charlize Theron Speaks Immigration, Diversity in ‘The Addams Family’

    They’re creepy, they’re kooky, and they’re an allegory for immigration in America.  Charlize Theron discussed the changing face of the nuclear family and her animated film, “The Addams Family,” with Variety at the movie’s recent premiere at the Century City Mall in Los Angeles. “When you think of [the Addams] being around since the sixties, [...]

  • Emma Stone attends the Los Angeles

    Emma Stone Talks 'Cruella' Transformation, New 'Zombieland' Sequel

    Despite inevitable comparisons to Glenn Close’s iconic turn as Cruella de Vil in 1996’s “101 Dalmatians,” Emma Stone teased that her take on the infamous villain in the upcoming “Cruella” movie will be very distinctive. “It comes long before her story,” Stone told Variety at the premiere of “Zombieland: Double Tap” at the Regency Village [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content