Film review by: Witney Seibold

This anthology documentary purports to blow the lid off of the way the American economy works, and how it’s influenced by unseen and unseeable influences. It essentially takes the easy road, throws its hand up and says that your guess is as good as ours. This is hardly a novel concept, and has been explored in better films (I hear that “Inside Job” is pretty infuriating), and it lends to an ultimately pointless film, but, luckily, we have some talented superstar doc directors to take us on an amusing journey.


“Freakonomics,” based on the famous bestseller by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen Dubner, is broken into four chapters, each variously explaining abstract notions of (respectively) how names are linked to success, how corruption can infect anything no matter how pure, how crime may be linked to Roe v. Wade, and how money can directly motivate behavior (or perhaps not).


The first film, “A Roshanda By Any Other Name,” is directed by Morgan Spurlock, of “Super Size Me” fame. He interviews professors and working-class citizens on the power of peoples’ first names and how it effects their future success an status. He tells the tale of a young black girl named “Temptress” who got into all kinds of trouble. He indicates that kids with common names like “John” and “Emily” are less likely to be teased, and are more commonly hired. He shows that a “black” sounding names gets fewer callbacks on a résumé. Name the black kid: Jack, Joey, Hubert, D’Juna. Name the white kid: Uneek, Taquisha, Shakila, Amber. As George Carlin once said, ten times out of ten, Nicky, Vinnie and Tony will beat the crap out of Todd, Kyle and Tucker.


This is all very amusing, and it’s a fun thing to think about (as a male named Witney, I’ve always been drawn to the power of names), but it’s maddeningly inconclusive, and offers nothing to the power of the economy. The final thesis seems to be that your name has no baring on your future attitude or success; it’s all to do with the attention of the parents and teachers. Um… O.k. On to the next one then.


The second film is called “Pure Corruption,” and is directed by Alex Gibney (“Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room,” “Taxi to the Dark Side”). He explores the corruption in the inside circles of sumo, which is typically, what with its connections to Shinto rituals, considered incorruptable and pure. But, as you follow the numbers, you begin to see that matches are deliberately being thrown, and some wrestlers have been threatened and even beaten to death to protect the scandal.


In Japan, evidently, the culture doesn’t much allow for corruption investigation, so it has run rampant for many years. There’s an important distinction between the perceived reality of the things, and the actual reality. It is only when the filmmakers begin speaking in the abstract that it seems to come back to our central theme of American economics. In this regard, “Pure Corruption” lends itself most strongly to the center of the movie.


The third film is called “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” and is directed by Eugene Jarecki (“Why We Fight”), and is essentially a lecture given by Dubner. He posits that the sudden crime drop that the U.S. experienced in the 1990s was due to a connection to the passing of Roe v. Wade twenty years earlier. You see, if there are fewer unwanted pregnancies in the country, then there are more wanted children. Which leads to closer parenting and schooling, which leads to better-adjusted people, which leads to less criminals. There are numbers to support this.


This is a fascinating theory, but, like anything in this film, is just a theory. I find the data convincing, but others could argue just as eloquently for other things as well. Roe v. Wade could have easily led to a crime dip when those wanted babies turned 21. Only time will tell how true this is.


The fourth film, “Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?” directed by Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, is the film’s best, and actually suggests a real connection between money, habits, and motivation. The title is rather literal, as the filmmakers tried a project: They selected dozens 14-year-old of D- and F-students at a typical American high school, and offered them $50 a month if they would steadily improve their grades. They also were entered into a lottery, and, if they won, would receive an additional $500, and a ride in a limo. Can a ninth grader be bribed into success?


As it turns out, no. We follow two students most closely. One of them works hard and studies, and barely manages to turn himself into a C student. He claims that it is hard, but, as his mother so tactfully gets him to admit, he wasn’t doing all the necessary homework. He was motivated, though, and improved. The other student we see is a shiftless skater punk who plays too many video games, and passes notes during class (which is all done with the telephone these days); indeed he is caught on camera sending a text message. His mother offers to match whatever money he is paid, but he just stares at his shoes, and lazily huffs off to the next thing. His grades dropped to all F’s. He concludes that the Army is the bast thing for him, and resigns himself to a life of failure. It’s rather tragic.


Ultimately, the filmmakers conclude that kids’ bad habits are already too well-ingrained by age 14 for bribery to work. As the film ends, they propose their project to kindergartens. I can only assume the reward would be different.

Each of the films is rather good, but they never cohere into a whole. It’s like watching four very good episodes of “The Awful Truth” or the “This American Life” TV show. A good way to pass the time, and chock full of interesting ideas, but inconclusive, and not very hard-hitting.

Published in: on October 20, 2010 at 3:30 pm  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Hey Witney,

    I was perusing (dictionary definition) your blog and I noticed that a lot of your top ten lists that are linked through geekscape are not there. How the fuck am I going to read them if I they’re not on the internet? You need to put them on your site, or provide working links. I wanted to read those lists, Witney. You have a practical, engagin writing style, and I want more. End this no-link bullshit.


    • Yeah. Geekscape recently did a site-wide overhaul of all their contact, and all the links changed. I have yet to update them, mostly due to sloth. You can still see all the articles and top-10 lists I wrote for them at, by going to the site proper, looking them up by title. Once you find one, you can click on my name, and a list will appear of all of my articles.

      That said, thanks for the compliments.


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