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Still shot from the movie: Freakonomics.

Freakonomics

Based on the best-selling book Freakonomics by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner, this documentary takes a satirical look at a variety of subjects from an economic perspective.

Overall Grade: B+
Violence: C
Sexual Content: C+
Language: C-
Drugs/Alcohol: C-
Release Date:
Run Time: 85
MPAA Rating: PG-13

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In-Depth Review

Some people, like one unnamed member of my family, believe that any book worth reading will eventually be made into a movie. If the 2005 best selling non-fiction title Freakonomics has been on your To Read list, then hold out no longer.

However hardcore market trends and fiscal information is the last thing you’ll find here. Based on the research by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt and New York Times journalist Stephen J. Duber, the 2010 documentary scrolls some numbers across the screen but they have little to do with the kind of economics you’ll learn in university. Rather the film offers some unusual explanations for a wide range of subjects including the impact of Romanian leader Nicolae Ceausecu’s assassination and Roe v. Wade on crime statistics.

The first topic covered is the real estate agent’s rationale between encouraging his or her client to sell now or hold out. It is a short sequence yet makes some sense when considering the amount of effort needed for a limited monetary return. Other subjects though, seem to stretch the application of economic scrutiny. One chapter discusses the impact of a baby’s name on his or her future success. Having grown up with a male spelling of my female name, I have to admit there may be something to the theory. (More than once my gender’s been mistaken in written communication. I think my seventh grade pen pal was a bit bummed to find out she was writing to a girl and not a boy.) But it seems difficult to assign a dollar value advantage based solely on a name.

The movie also addresses cheating in the time-honored Japanese sport of Sumo wrestling and further suggests corruption exists in the country’s police force. For any parent who has resorted to paying their kids to get good grades, the film follows an incentive study conducted by the University of Chicago with freshmen students.

Glammed up with glitzy graphics and an almost comedic approach in some of the segments, this screen adaptation offers a number of good discussion starters—even if they don’t have much to do with the economy. Parents, however, should be aware the movie contains brief strong language scrawled on a sign, discussion of abortions, a few near naked women in a strip joint and the bloody, battered body of a Sumo wrestler.

Some have disputed the validity of Levitt and Duber’s reports, calling them little more than the product of pulp culture or amateur sociology. Yet despite which side of the debate one stands on, the documentary presents an interesting look at critical thinking. While the filmmakers may not be able to prove the premises they propose, they at least suggest that there are many ways to examine issues and asking questions may be the best way to broaden our horizons.

Content Details: Beyond the Movie Ratings...

Violence: A battered, bloody corpse is seen. Teens use chemicals to make homemade bombs that they detonate. Scenes of civil riots, gun crime and robberies are shown along with injured victims and the body of an executed man.

Sexual Content: Exotic dancers wear only g-strings and a superimposed image of their name over their bare breasts. Sumo wrestlers are shown in their buttock baring sports attire. Abortions are discussed.

Language: An extreme sexual expletive is written on a sign. Infrequent profanities, crude slang and terms of Deity are used in the script.

Alcohol / Drug Use: Characters are bribed with cigarettes. Minimal depictions of cigarette use include that of a teen. Illegal drug use is briefly portrayed. A teen tries to trade prescription drugs for a cigarette.

Other: Cheating and sport fixing is discussed along with suggestions of police corruption. A student makes a homemade tattoo gun to inject his arm with dye. Decaying inner city neighborhoods are shown.

Discussion Ideas: Talk About the Movie...

Why does the illusion of purity make it difficult to question something? How does this attitude allow supposedly honorable people to get away with crimes?

The erroneous cause and effect connection between ice cream and polio depicts an interesting example of how theories and science can be proved wrong. What other examples of this mistaken link can you think of?

Do you agree with monetary incentives for students who do their homework and get good grades? Is that kind of inducement any different than the paychecks that working people receive for their efforts? What would motivate you to do better?

Video alternatives

Waiting for Superman also deals with the educational crisis in the United States. American Teen follows a group of high school students from Warsaw, Indiana during their senior year.

Home Video Notes

Freakonomics releases to DVD and Blu-ray on January 18, 2011.

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About the Reviewer: Kerry Bennett

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