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Incentives matter. If you know what motivates people — economically or otherwise — you can predict (or at least explain) how they might behave. That’s the lesson Freakonomics wants you to walk away with.

Value Added

Until the release of “Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, the subject of economics seemed pretty dry. But by applying economic theories to everyday occurrences, they offered insight into why some things are the way they are. Some of the chapters in their book are “Why Do Drug Dealers Still Live with Their Moms?” and “How Is the Ku Klux Klan Like a Group of Real-Estate Agents?”

The movie follows the same disjointed chapter format. In the movie, the chapters are glued together with interviews of the authors’ talking heads, and some repeated marimba music that is familiar, generic, and repetitive enough to be distracting.

Quarterly Earnings

Each chapter is directed by a different hot documentarian, who tackles one of the Freakonomic questions raised in the book. Each filmmaker uses his own style. Gibney’s is a political thriller; Spurlock’s has a sense of humor; Jarecki’s has a film noir feel to it.

Morgan Spurlock ( Super Size Me) asks “What’s in a name?” Answer: a statistical prejudice for “white” names over “black” names in the job market.

Alex Gibney ( Enron) asks “Are sumo wrestlers in Japan and teachers in Chicago cheating?” Answer: yes, but to find the patterns that reveal cheating, you have to think like a cheater.

Eugene Jarecki ( Why We Fight) asks “Why did crime fall in the 1990s?” Answer: it had as much to do with the legalization of abortion as it did with all other factors combined, including incarceration rates and crack prices.

Finally, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady ( Jesus Camp) ask “Can a 9th Grader be bribed to succeed?” Answer: yes, but it only works on 5-10% of them. We see one kid for whom the offer of a stretch Hummer limo ride was enough to motivate academic achievement; I was proud of him by the end. Another kid is happy to take incentive the researchers’ money but only if it’s easy; we catch him lying to the researchers on the phone, almost completely distracted by the video game he’s playing at the same time. I worried for America’s future when I saw his lack of motivation.

The Bottom Line

As with the book, each chapter is easily digestible. The research and findings are simplified, but not oversimplified. You do feel like you’re getting the whole story, just not all the wonky details.

But as with the book, the movie is a scattered. Granted, each story is chosen because economic principles can be applied to an area not directly associated with money. But really, sumo wrestling belongs in a different opus from an investigation into the names Americans give their children.

The linking interviews help to hold the whole thing together. And each segment includes one or both of the authors, which reminds us of their presence between the segments and helps hold the movie together. And if the goal of Freakonomics is to popularize the math used to explain human behavior, then film is probably a better medium than books. Maybe this is a case where the movie is better than the book.