Tuesday, September 7, 2010


There is little incentive to viewing the multi-doc adaptation of Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner's "Freakonomics," although the list of contributing documentarians may make you think otherwise: Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, and Seth Gordon, who've done some very good documentaries over the past decade. However, their works here all are problematic in some way or another, and they serve as more proof that very rarely do omnibus films produce essential works of a director (one example, much disputed, is Bong Joon-Ho's "Shaking Tokyo" in the film "Tokyo," which I consider the director's best work to date, though I haven't seen "Memories of Murder"). Despite the fact that each segment illuminates thought-provoking subject matter, they are flawed showings from everyone involved.

The film is divided up into different sections that may or may not corollate to the book's chapters (I haven't read it). There's an introduction involving buying a house (which I agree with my friends was "intriguing"), and then sections like "Parenting," "Cheating," "Cause and Effect," and plain old "Incentives." The film leads off a section with an aside delivered by the authors, directed by Gordon, and annoyingly scored. These include topics that are (as my friend said) "interesting," but produce uninteresting results.

This is the problem also with Spurlock's segment (written with Jeremy Chilnick and entitled "A Roshonda By Any Other Name"), about the differences between the names of white and black people and whether they have any effect on the perception of the people monikered with them. This leads to shallow and somewhat tongue-in-cheek dramatic reenactments (or maybe just examples, though I'm pretty sure Spurlock says the incidents in question actually happened). This sort of tone is Spurlock's weapon-of-choice, and by way of virtue his films are extremely magnetic and watchable (due also to his accessible, conversational narration), despite having some not particularly well-done sections. He also has a trademark of overloading on graphics, which here sometimes work and sometimes are confusing and anachronistic on a basic level. He runs into trouble by not exploring the things he brings up with enough clarity, and slapping a storybook ending on at the end. I remember being somewhat unimpressed by it.

This is followed by Gibney's "Pure Corruption" (written with Peter Bull) about cheating in the "village-like" sumo wrestling industry, incentives to cheat in general, and the flawed police system in Japan. Probably this was the most profound of the bunch, but it also was complex and extremely expository, and didn't keep my attention the entire time, partially because it had the problem of white subtitles (which bothered my friend as well as I), which has plagued many a film (basically the main reason "Valentino: The Last Emperor" was so soporific). I also had somewhat of a subliminal urge for it to end, perhaps because of the endless-seeming red numbers that wash over the screen.

Then, Eugene Jarecki's misguided "It's Not Always A Wonderful Life" which uses a pretty-much-unnecessary narrator to relay what the economist says over and over again. Which begs the question: why not just have the economist narrate it? It also makes fundamental misuse of the plot of "It's A Wonderful Life," in which a good person, NOT a bad person, decides to see their life without them in it. Anyways, that aside, this doc is about how crime went down in the Nineties and how that was connected to abortion and Nicolae Ceaucescu's death. This film uses extremely useless and distracting graphics, which sometimes rush through the screen for short periods. I may have shut myself off a little from it, but (as my friend said of all of these films) it definitely wasn't a success on any level other than the intellectual. It seems sort of truncated, too, although it may just be that Jarecki turned in a smaller film.

Finally, we roll around to Ewing and Grady's, whose blandly titled "Can A Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" seems to succeed itself but ultimately isn't quite on the mark. It follows two kids to see if the incentive would work, somewhat simplistically painting the bad against the good (although the one that does succeed seems well explored). It follows to a murky conclusion, manufactures a standard sort of documentary suspense, and drops off (at least I think) somewhat strangely at the end. Still, it marshals graphics to better purpose than some of the others.

As my friend (who hadn't read the book) thought and Warble2850 of IMDb confirms, it would be better to just read the text that the film is based off of instead of seeing the film, which Warble2850 implies is somewhat of an adjunct. Skimming through the pages of the book on the internet, I would have to agree, as the topics are more or less the same. "Freakonomics"' full title is "Freakonomics: The Movie" which makes no attempt to hide its blatant agenda of reaming the same people who bought the book for more money (or to attract people who want to see the movie and not have to read the book). Even so, adaptations can produce good results. However, that's not the case with "Freakonomics." C

1 comment:

Stephanie aka The Stark Raving Bibliophile said...

I've never read this book, though my brother is a big fan of it. It really does sound like there was no reason to adapt it to the screen.