FREAKONOMICS BEGAN LIFE as a New York Times Magazine article and blossomed into a 2005 book you could gift to a Luddite relative without coming off as (too) condescending. In case you haven't read it, the book takes non-academic issues—like why girls given trashy names seem destined to dance naked—and filters them through an academic-yet-accessible lens.
Five years later, the project by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner has made the predictable transition to film. And with contributions from filmmakers like Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) and Alex Gibney (Casino Jack and the United States of Money), it's clear the move was hoped to be a critically heralded—and profitable—leap for the franchise.
And it is a leap—but a backward one. Freakonomics: The Movie! enlightens us more like Freakonomics: The Magazine Article than Freakonomics: The Book. (And the book was already a bit airy.) Worse, the magazine in this case is more like a Reader's Digest left to curl in a bathroom than anything you'd find tucked into the New York Times.
With the exception of Spurlock's light look at baby names, the segments in Freakonomics are too short and breezy to do justice to their subjects. (Never mind that they're also tonally dissonant, stitched together by fawning interviews with the book's authors.)
Gibney's piece—a study of cheating among sumo wrestlers, clumsily framed as a Wall Street allegory—could fill a film by itself. And a vignette by Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) on paying kids to earn good grades doesn't dig deeply enough into the characters of the teens at its core.
But, then, you know how it is with Reader's Digest: You'll thumb through it, guiltily, when there's nothing else. You might even pass along a nugget you read. It's just that you usually wish you had something meatier.