Seth Gordon pulls case studies from Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt's best-selling book and hands them over to famous documentary filmmakers, resulting in the anthology Freakonomics. Gordon (The King of Kong) knits together the resulting shorts with interludes that attempt to build a coherent narrative out of clever animation and talking-head interviews with the authors.
One of the pleasures of Freakonomics is seeing how very different filmmakers — Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me), Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), and the team of Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing (Jesus Camp) — approach basically identical material.
"Pure Corruption," Gibney's meditation on sumo wrestling and corporate malfeasance, is the most artful and thoughtful of the four segments; Jarecki's is the weakest. Grady and Ewing's "Can You Bribe a Ninth Grader to Succeed?" drops us in the middle of a study that examines how kids respond to being offered $50 a month for decent grades.
The simple question of whether the underachievers will collect their money gives Freakonomics a welcome jolt of narrative energy. Though the study isn't exactly a success, it tells viewers more about real research — the messy and difficult process by which thinkers in all disciplines make sense of the world — than anything else here.