Reader Brandon asks: Assuming you have watched the documentary by now, do you care to offer any sort of critique/promotion of the movie?
(For context, I had plugged the Freakonomics movie earlier this weekend.)
Ask and you shall receive…to be precise, I ended up watching the movie with my best friend (and a giant orange cat) on Saturday. I figured this was one of the few times I could actually get my non-economist pals to engage on the subject matter for 90 minutes in one sitting, and I was curious to hear his feedback from a film-school graduate point of view. These are roughly the conclusions that said friend, the cat and I came to:
- You know the line about the book being better than the movie? I think I can finally get behind that concept. (I generally read nonfiction, so the book to movie problem doesn’t come up a whole lot with what I read.) I think it may make sense to watch the movie before reading the book, but the reverse order doesn’t work so well. This is mainly because the book goes into much more detail regarding the actual mechanics of what Levitt does in order to reach his conclusions, and I think that the process is what makes a lot of what he does interesting. The documentary, on the other hand, mainly illustrates (literally, with drawings and actors) the problems and the conclusions, with only a little discussion about how to get from one to the other. I fully understand that the above evaluation comes from a place of heavy nerdy bias, but my friend did agree with me on this point, so that says something.
- All of the pieces of the documentary were directed by different people, and this is definitely apparent to the viewer. This concept has potential to be super interesting, but instead it was a little awkward. More specifically, the pieces varied a lot in length, and it wasn’t really the case that the most in-depth or interesting topics got the most airtime. For example, I now know more than I ever expected to about sumo wrestling, since this segment quickly veered away from Levitt’s analysis of cheating to a more general discussion of sumo wrestling and the ramifications of the cheating being exposed. (My friend is a big fan of professional wrestling, so my hypothesis was that this would be his favorite part. It wasn’t- he said that he wanted to hear more about baby names…interesting comment from a musician who is dead-set on naming his first daughter Melody. =P He said that he would have happily watched a segment purely about sumo wrestling or a segment purely about data analysis, but something about the middle ground didn’t quite work.) In addition, the part in the book about the profitability (or lack thereof) of being a rank-and-file crack dealer was noticeably absent from the movie, and my friend noted that some of the segments seemed to end before they had really reached definitive conclusions.
- Some of the artsy-fartsy transitions were way too long and thus a little awkward. This is obviously more of a stylistic issue than a content-related one, but it was a little distracting.
- My favorite part of the documentary was a small piece about Levitt’s daughter Amanda that wasn’t in Freakonomics at all, at least not that I remember. (I could be wrong, since it’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but my search in my Kindle version of the book suggests that I am correct.) He explained that when she was a baby he had offered her M&M’s as a toilet-training reward. Apparently Amanda and I are soulmates, since Levitt said that it took her about three days to figure out how to game the system by going to the bathroom every 5 minutes to maximize her payout. He even specifically made the point that if a three-year-old can quickly figure out how to game an incentive system, it’s certainly worth giving careful consideration to potential gaming behavior when designing incentives for adults. (You can read more about the potty story here.
- Stephen Dubner has great Malcolm Gladwell-esque hair. (See here for a visual.)
Overall, I think the movie is worth renting once it gets cheaper if you’re feeling like you want something random to watch (it’s currently either $9.99 or $10.99 to rent in iTunes, depending on whether you want high-definition or not). That said, it’s not quite something that you can watch that will prove to your non-econ friends that economics is really really awesome and entertaining. (I’m still working on that movie, thanks. Good thing I have film-school friends.) My current recommendation is still to read the book, especially since the book is currently less expensive than the movie rental.
On another note, I can’t resist giving you a visual of the cat:
I call him Garfield, for obvious reasons. I also like that he reminds me of Garfield Minus Garfield.