Freakonomics

Imagine this: California is struck by a late September heat wave the same week that popsicle prices drop by a quarter. Coincidence, you ask? But an economist would wonder if it’s correlation or causality: are grocery owners simply tracking the official start of fall to make room on their shelves or are they seizing an advantage to push product to the shocked and sweaty consumers? There’s a reason for everything we do. In fact, there’s more reasons than realities, and the job of an economist is to use numbers to tease out the truth. Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner’s 2005 bestsellerFreakonomics asked why drug dealers still live with their mothers and whether Rudy Giuliani can really take credit for New York’s ’90s crime drop. Their answers became pearls of quirky common wisdom, and now they’ve become a fun, fleet film directed in chapters by six of today’s hot documentarians: Seth Gordon (The King of Kong), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States of Money) and Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady (Jesus Camp).

The facts haven’t changed, but there’s a satisfaction in live-action number-crunching that feels like you’re lifting up your skull and giving your frontal lobe a scratch. Since four million people have already read the book, what’s new in this retelling is seeing the presence of the directors in shaping the statistics. Spurlock’s A Roshanda By Any Other Name, best captures the breezy feel of the book, while Gibney’s high-drama investigation of corruption in sumo wrestling is NCIS: Tokyo. Jarecki’s segment is sprightly, but thin; Ewing and Grady may be the best interviews in the business; and Gordon’s gifted at tying the whole film together with his between-chapters illustrations. Sometimes, Freakonomics has all the answers. More often, it just asks the right questions. And in today’s 24-hour froth of insta-pundit analysis, we need curiosity more than certainty.

Click here for Freakonomics in the IE Weekly

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