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Thought-Provoking Freakonomics Handles the "Truth"

  • Richard Abanes Contributing Writer
  • Updated Jan 21, 2011
Thought-Provoking <i>Freakonomics</i> Handles the "Truth"

DVD Release Date:  January 18, 2011
Theatrical Release Date:  October 1, 2010 (limited)

Rating:  PG-13 (for profanity, brief nudity, and mature themes relating to drugs/violence)

Genre:   Documentary

Run Time:  86 min.

Directors:  Seth Gordon, Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Eugene Jarecki, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady

Actors:  None

Freakonomics, a 60 Minutes-like expose created by economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner, is a bit "freaky."

The film is based on Levitt's book Freakonomics (2009), which offered a look at various topics he found worthy of investigation. It was a volume that made millions of readers doubt the truthfulness of what they had heard either in the news or on the street. And this seems to be the purpose of the movie—i.e., to get people to question what they believe about certain things, why they believe what they believe, and whether or not what they believe is true.

To raise the discernment of the audience, Levitt and Dubner, who serve as narrators, present four segments covering four issues:  1) how a person's name might affect his or her life; 2) whether corruption exists in the mysterious world of Sumo wrestling; 3) why crime rates dropped in the U.S. in the 1990s; and 4) could bribery actually motivate high school students to do better in class.

Particularly interesting is how Freakonomics, unlike many documentaries, is not dry or academic. The multiple directors, each of whom was assigned different segments of the film, often handle the material with humorous scripting and entertaining re-enactments of true-life events that prompted Levitt to cover the specific material.

Most riveting is the section on Sumo wrestling, which for many years was viewed as a sport based on honor, truth, integrity, and even spirituality; a sport beyond reproach. And yet what we learn through Levitt is how the pinnacle of competition in Japan is rife with cheating, intimidation of whistleblowers, and even murder. It's disturbing, to say the least, especially when Levitt implicates the whole of Japanese society as a silent co-conspirator for essentially looking the other way (police included).

Noteworthy about this film is how each main topic eventually ties into peripheral issues. For example, the segment on Sumo wrestling dovetails into a look at police corruption in Japan. The section on how names affect us takes not only a side glance at parenting, but also the cultural differences between blacks and whites. And the part on whether or not teens can be bribed into doing better at school also discusses the topic of cause and effect.

Unfortunately, Freakonomics is marred by a highly controversial and terribly offensive theory raised in its third segment—i.e., that the crime-rate drop in the 1990s can be directly attributed to the 1973 Roe vs. Wade Supreme Court decision that legalized abortion. How so? According to Levitt, unwanted children are more likely to become criminals when they reach adulthood. Therefore, since abortion effectively stopped unwanted babies from being born, those unwanted babies never grew into criminal adults, which ultimately resulted in a drop in crime. This is not only a morally appalling concept (from a pro-life position), but it also fails to take into account a plethora of other factors that might account for the crime-rate drop of the 1990s.

And here we arrive at the film's greatest weakness, which is its total lack of contrary opinion or conflicting statistics. In other words, the deck is stacked in favor of Levitt's pet opinions. He is a master at manipulating statistics. This is not to say that everything Levitt has to say is wrong, but it is only fair that when we watch Freakonomics (a film that encourages us to ask questions and doubt what we are spoon-fed as truth), we analyze it with the same measure of caution that we are being told to analyze everything else we hear.

Freakonomics is enjoyable entertainment and at times thought-provoking, but it should most definitely be taken with a grain of salt—perhaps a few grains.


  • Language/Profanity:  Mildly profane words such as s---., d----, and h-ll, appear sporadically. And a teenage male uses a slang reference to male genitals.
  • Smoking/Drinking/Drugs:  Use of drugs and alcohol is depicted in a re-enactment way in the segments dealing with street crime.
  • Nudity:  Three strippers in a strip club appear topless and dancing seductively for male customers. This segment lasts for approximately three minutes in the segment dealing with how names affect our profession/success.
  • Sex/Sexual situations:  A very distant shot of a young teenage girl having sex in a car is presented in a comical away. The figures in the car are only shadows moving, but the car is rocking back and forth as suggestive moans are heard in the film's soundtrack.
  • Violence:  A segment on crime discusses murder and a photograph of a dead body is shown.
  • Spiritual messages:  In discussing the Japanese sport of Sumo Wrestling, various teachings of Shintoism are discussed, including belief in many gods and their superstitions surrounding evil spirits.