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'Freak' is weak

New documentary just can't keep up with the book.


'FREAKONOMICS': The must-read of 2005 gets the big-screen documentary treatment.
  • 'FREAKONOMICS': The must-read of 2005 gets the big-screen documentary treatment.

I love pop-science. I'm talking Malcolm Gladwell, "Mythbusters," NPR's "Science Friday" and a whole gang of others who turn physics and statistics into digestible fun facts for the "Physics for Poets" alumni of America.I devour it all. How can you gauge someone's libido by how they sound their vowels? Tell me. Avian migratory patterns make my eyebrows grow thicker? No joke? Let's go.

But of all the pop-sci peddlers — and there are many — economists Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner remain my favorite thanks in large to "Freakonomics," their best-selling book that became a phenomenon and spawned a million debates about cheating in sumo wrestling and Romanian alcoholics.

Now, five years later, the witty, clever non-fiction book has made the rare jump to the big screen as a series of four short documentaries — three taken directly from the book — each vignette helmed by a different director and, sadly, each adaptation a bit more of a let down than the last.

It's not as disappointing as it is flat-out surprising, considering the producers wrangled up a dream team of documentarians for the task.

Morgan Spurlock ("Super Size Me") explores how much influence one's name has on a person's social and economic trajectory in "A Rashonda By Any Other Name." The discussions with academics and man-on-the-street interviews (fans of "The Wire," look out for an unscripted cameo from Ziggy Sobotka) are light enough to make for an entertaining half-hour of "black people do this, white people do this."

"Pure Corruption," directed by the great political thriller documentarian Alex Gibney ("Taxi to the Dark Side"), trades in Spurlock's twee stylings for a slick, hyper-stylized look at the culture of cheating in the seemingly sacrosanct world of sumo wrestling. The polished, sinister Japan in Gibney's camera is a joy to look at, but ends up serving as a distraction from the fact that it's just not nearly as engaging as the original source material.  

Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, who directed 2006's unbelievable "Jesus Camp," turn their eyes toward two slackers on the verge of failing out of a Chicago Heights junior high school to ask "Can a 9th Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?" The verdict? Eh, yeah, kinda.

Andrew Jarecki, who's no stranger to digging through unsettling topics ("Capturing the Friedmans"), does a fine job in "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life," sorting through the political disinformation and self-congratulatory backslapping that came after the sharp decline of crime in the early '90s. After the murder sprees and crack binges of the '80s fizzled out, were Rudy Giuliani's "no quarter" policies really to credit for the drop in crime? Or was it the Roe v. Wade decision 28 years previous? You can see where this goes and, yeah, it warrants a fuller, further examination. That you can find in a book. For free. At a library.

Like the book that spawned it, "Freakonomics" is a breezy rip through a socio-statistical rabbit hole that spits the viewer up in the most unexpected of places. Sure, it's just entertaining enough to eat up an hour and a half of a rainy afternoon and — hey, teachers — would play great in a high school classroom. But for now, I'm going to go ahead call a cash grab a cash grab and maintain that the book, as these things go, is the one worth your time.  

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