'Freakonomics' presents unconventional wisdom unevenly

Posted: October 01, 2010

Upending conventional wisdom, finding the lie in pie charts, scanning the data for the unexamined "Aha!", contrarian coauthors Stephen J. Dubner and Steven D. Levitt - a journalist and an economist - had a pop-cult phenom on their hands when Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything was published in 2005.

And now it's a movie.

With the affable Dubner and Levitt introducing each of the anthology's four chapters, Freakonomics examines social, cultural, and financial issues with an eye to getting people to think differently.

Or simply to think.

By far the weakest of the segments is the first, "A Roshanda by Any Other Name." Directed by Super Size Me's Morgan Spurlock, and employing actors and dubious doc-style techniques, the jokey, sloppy short asks whether one's name can determine one's fate, and considers how names do and don't reflect class and ethnicity.

Alex Gibney's "Pure Corruption" gets things back on track, looking at cheating, and cheaters, and how even the "pure" Japanese sport of sumo has been sullied by deceit.

Eugene Jarecki's "It's (Not Always) a Wonderful Life" takes a new, and controversial, look at crime statistics and causality. Maybe more police on the street and less crack cocaine aren't the key reasons American cities have seen a dramatic decrease in homicides?

Finally, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady's "Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" follows a University of Chicago education experiment that offered cash incentives to high schoolers to boost their grades. Does it work? Is it wrong?

Freakonomics is uneven, and even a little cloying, but its sum effect isn't bad: It tells us to consider the facts, then reconsider them from other perspectives, and then factor human behavior into the equation.

Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/

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