© 2023 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

On Movies: 'Freakonomics' proves that statistics do not a good movie make

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 21, 2010 - "Freakonomics," the best-selling book that grandly promises to reveal "the hidden side of everything," does not translate very well to the screen. Perhaps the problem lies in the nature of the material: It's hard to inject visual excitement into a discussion of statistics, although the half-dozen filmmakers involved in this ill-advised project throw in everything but a car chase in an attempt to liven things up.

What we keep coming back to are economist Steven D. Levitt and writer Stephen J. Debner reciting information from their book, followed by an episode based on a chapter in the book. A lot of the time, the conclusion seems to be a thinly veiled "Who knows?" For example, the answer to the question posed by "Can a Ninth-Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?," seems to be "Depends on the Ninth-Grader."

In "A Roshonda by Any Other Name," we are told that it doesn't matter what you name your kid, apparently because there are two brothers named Winner and Loser; and Winner is a loser and Loser is the king of the world.

Most controversial is "It's Not Always a Wonderful Life," which advances the proposition, with the help of statistics from Romania, that much of the unexpected decline in crime in the 1990s in America was a result of the legalization of abortion in the 1970s. Key to the argument is the premise that unwanted children don't turn out as well as wanted children.

Could be. I kept thinking of my college logic class, where one of the first things I learned was to avoid the fallacy called "post hoc, ergo propter hoc" - "after this, therefore because of this." You know - the Cardinals went into the toilet after Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols agreed to appear with Glenn Beck, therefore the Cardinals went into the toilet because Tony La Russa and Albert Pujols agreed to appear with Glenn Beck. Ridiculous, right?

The various directors try to enliven the statistical analysis - referred to by the neologism "data mining" - with what a local wit in the ad game used to describe as "dancing popcorn" - cute visuals supposed to liven up a dull subject. One director has Tinkerbell from "Peter Pan" flying in and out of the picture, tapping her wand on bullet points.

The silly and sometimes confusing animation is, however, to be preferred to the interminable belly-bumping we get to watch in an episode that focuses, in part, on cheating in Sumo wrestling. I learned a lot more about Sumo wrestling than I wanted to know, and saw a lot more of Sumo wrestlers than I wanted to see.

Opens Friday Oct. 22


In "Primal Fear," "Fight Club," "American History X" and other gritty movies, the superb young actor Edward Norton plays characters divided against themselves, characters who, in one way or another, embody two opposing personalities. Norton once said, "All people are paradoxical. No one is easily reducible, so I like characters who have contradictory impulses or shades of ambiguity. It's fun, and it's fun because it's hard."

In "Stone," true to form, Norton plays an imprisoned arsonist who undergoes such great psychological changes that he seems to become another person. But is he?

When we first meet Stone (Norton), his hair is corn-rowed, his chin is goateed, and he speaks with the voice of a white man who grew up in a tough black neighborhood. The movie is set in the Detroit area, so a comparison to Eminem comes to mind. But Norton is not imitating anyone; he is creating a full-blown personality, angry and paranoiac and passionate and a whole lot smarter than he at first seems to be. Stone has his gentle moments, but even then there is a piercing light in his eyes that looks as though it could burn a hole through you if you make the wrong move. And he is so mercurial, it's almost impossible to figure out what the right move might be.

Norton's performance is a phenomenal one. The other two main actors in what becomes a perverse and risky triangle - Robert De Niro as Stone's pre-release parole officer and Milla Jovovich as Stone's deceptively goofy wife - also do well, but Norton dominates the movie.

The plot - Stone's wife tries to seduce his parole officer to help secure her husband's release - is, at best, serviceable. Director John Curran ("The Painted Veil") and writer Angus McLachlan ("Junebug") are sometimes overbearing in constantly reminding us that the parole officer uses his Christianity to smother the irrational anger that underlies all his actions. But the movie is worth seeing for its performances and particularly for Edward Norton's as Stone. Norton has been nominated twice for Academy Awards. He probably won't be nominated for a third one for "Stone," which is, despite its star power, a small movie, but he deserves to be.

Opens Friday Oct. 22

Harper Barnes, the author of Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement, is a special contributor to the Beacon.

Harper Barnes
Harper Barnes' most recent book is Never Been A Time: The 1917 Race Riot That Sparked The Civil Rights Movement

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.