SYNOPSIS: Freakonomics is the highly anticipated film version of the phenomenally best-selling book about incentives-based thinking by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner. Like the book, the film examines human behavior with provocative and sometimes hilarious case studies, bringing together a dream team of filmmakers responsible for some of the most acclaimed and entertaining documentaries in recent years.


One of the most important things this reviewer learnt after watching this documentary is that he should be contented with his name. Apparently, “John” is considered a “white name” which will put him ahead in life, especially compared to “black names” like, err, “Tyrone” and “Dominique”.

Yes, as absurd as it sounds, this is just one of the four areas of interest explored in this film based on the non fiction book “Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything” (what a title, phew!) by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J Dubner.

After a short introduction by the two authors, four filmmakers investigate four topics which may (or may not) interest you. The first segment, “A Roshanda By Any Other Name” by Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me, Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden?), looks at the possible implications of names in personal development and social advancement. “Pure Corruption” by Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) brings audiences into the underbellies of Japan where match fixing in Sumo wrestling seems to be a worrying trend.

Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) directs “It’s Not Always A Wonderful Life” which suggests that the decline in urban crime rate in the US during the mid to late 1990s is a result of a federal law which permitted people to have legal abortions (you have to watch this segment to see how this is linked to less crime being committed). Paying students to achieve higher grades seems to be the way to go in Rachel Grady’s (Jesus Camp) “Can You Bribe A 9th Grader To Succeed!”.

The underlying theme of Freakonomics is that economics is, at root, the study of incentives. The interesting aspect is how Levitt and Dubner puts everyday issues into the spotlight, especially those which are not considered “serious” topics by traditional economists. That said, the filmmakers have done a commendable job by translating the words in the bestselling book into visuals, using eye catching graphics, engaging reenactments and fast paced music accompaniment to capture your attention. The decision to involve some of the most acclaimed documentary filmmakers to come together for this 89 minute film is also a smart move. Digestible and entertaining, the four clips are easy to sit through.

The only qualm we have is, as much as we want to buy the notion that the documentary is putting forward, we don’t really care about Sumo wrestling and its dark side, do we? Neither are we too interested in crime rates in the US. The differing styles of filmmaking also mean that the original message put forth by Levitt and Dubner may be diluted as the film progresses.

Fortunately, Grady’s last segment ends off the viewing experience with an amusing experiment which may leave you chuckling, but not necessary better informed about the role economics play in the larger scheme of things.




There is nothing to complain about the movie’s visual transfer. It is presented in English Dolby Digital 5.1 or 2.0.



Review by John Li