REVIEW: Exposing 'the Hidden Side of Everything,' Freakonomics Spreads Itself Too Thin

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A turbulent attempt to turn a 2003 jumbo bestseller of pop socio-economics into a pot-stirring documentary, Freakonomics features six great directors and one unhelpfully vague theme: Exposing "the hidden side of everything." That's the kind of subhead that looks great on mass-market book covers, but Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's wide-ranging, anecdotal approach to the difference between correlation and causality has lost some of its cumulative mojo in translation, partly because after seven years the pot is pretty well stirred, and partly because the medium demands narrative focus.

Despite chaptering the documentary into four discrete segments (each separately helmed and stylistically distinct) and providing introductory interstitials (directed by Seth Gordon, of The King of Kong), the dominant and most persuasive theme of Freakonomics is probably promotion of the brand. Instead of being the Paris Je T'Aime of documentaries (and that film's producer, Chad Troutwine, was indeed the mastermind here), the film, at its worst, plays like the slickest, most pedigreed extended book trailer a publisher could hope for. As it happens, branding is the heart of the first chapter, "A Roshanda By Any Other Name," directed by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me). After being introduced to the authors via a disorienting anecdote about the dubiously aligned interests of real estate agents and their clients, Spurlock takes the reins, using canned skits, cannily chosen street interviews, and animation to explore the theory that a name can determine your destiny.

The story of a black child accidentally named "Temptress" (instead of Tempestt, like the Cosby Show actress) who grew up to get into all kinds of temptation-based trouble is the starting point for a fascinating but crudely executed look at class and cultural developments in the most literal manifestation of identity we have. Strippers walk around with their stripper names branded across their bare breasts as Spurlock wags about how the formerly popular middle class name Ashley trickled down to the "Wal-Mart set" and became "low-rent Trashley." Self-control is obviously not in the Spurlock repertoire, and yet here its lack highlights one of the problems of translating Dubner and Levitt into a visual medium: Spurlock uses images of grooving "ghetto fabulous" girls to illustrate the 220 spellings of "Unique" that have been documented as names for black girls. It's a glib conceptualization that does a disservice to the material but also leaves its casual ethnography uncomfortably exposed.

National, cultural, and institutional identities are one focus of Alex Gibney's chapter, "Pure Corruption." Gibney (Taxi to the Dark Side) takes a moody, atmospheric look at cheating in Japanese sumo wrestling, a practice that flourished, it is argued, precisely because sumo is considered a sacred extension of Shinto beliefs. No one wanted to believe such a thing was possible, and that denial allowed the scandal to continue, leading to violent cover-ups. Things get a little soupy when Gibney attempts to analogize the sumo scenario with the United States' financial collapse: Did pre-2008 America really view financial institutions like Goldman Sachs and J.P. Morgan as paragons of unquestionable purity? No doubt a collective pathology and mass denial was involved, but I suspect both were rooted in widespread greed and self-interest of variable gradations.

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