In the new Freakonomics documentary, professor Stephen Levitt faces the task of potty training his daughter and tells his wife, “I’m an economist. Let me take over.” Using the economics proverb that human behavior can be predicted by incentives, Levitt promises his daughter M&Ms every time she uses the bathroom by herself.
The scheme is effective until his 3-year-old daughter outsmarts it, dragging out one trip to the bathroom into six for increased candy profits. This story sets up viewers for the conclusion, “Governments think they know how incentives work, but they backfire in unpredictable ways.”
This snapshot scene is formula for how most of the film works. It’s This American Life meets economic theory, a re-cap of the internationally best selling book Freakonomics that everyone got for Christmas in 2005. Following the trend of pop academia, think Malcolm Gladwell and NPR’s Radio Lab, the film builds engaging characters, unfolds charming stories to humanize research, and uses these stories to arrive at larger social conclusions. It’s research that doesn’t leave out the researcher. These studies are explained with quirky, first person voice that’s often lacking in say, The Journal of Post-Keynesian Economics.
The film deals with the same academic studies from the original book, such as the explanation of dropping crime rates in the ‘90s with the passing of Roe v. Wade. Unconventional economics is brought to life with creative animation and brightly colored bar graphs. If this movie were a power point presentation, it would be knock-your-glasses-off good. But it’s not. Its project is more ambitious—to present a visual journey of the 2005 book, which raises the question: What does the film version add that the original couldn’t express?
It seemed the filmmakers were asking themselves the same questions of how to make fresh conclusion with old research data. This is could be why the documentary version seems—unlike the book—strangely political. The film tacks on new political connections to the end of hard science research, like a study about predicting cheating sumo wrestlers in Japan as analogous to Bernie Madoff and the financial crisis. This displays a problem with pop academia in general—the entertaining social conclusions often overstep the scope and intent of the original research, sometimes for the sake of entertainment or maybe because the depth, controversy, and nuance of academic study can’t always fit into a pretty cartoon.
The Freakonomics documentary was at its strongest when it used character development to resurrect academic data. One of the studies was about whether inner city students would improve their grades when offered a $50 dollar reward. There’s a scene with the school principal explaining he’d love to do the study on his students because the University of Illinois will be paying for it and he points to a kitschy “OPPORTUNITY” poster on his office wall. The deadpan filming and melodramatic color palate of the scene is reminiscent of Wes Anderson. The camera also goes home with the witty Chicago ninth grader, Urail King, whose enthusiasm illustrates the motivating power of incentives and serves as the entertaining bright spot of the film.
If the Freakonomics book is still sitting on your shelf unread, then it could be worth going to check out the film version. You’ll spend an hour and a half getting the same info that would take hours to read, and instead that info will prance around the screen as cute animation. Yet, if you’ve already read the book, then the film will feel like a needless repeat and the tacked-on political analogies are too much of a stretch to be illuminating. Overall, it leaves viewers wondering if the incentives for producers to whip up this re-tell were mostly financial rather than educational.