Sometimes you can have all the best people working on your side and still end up with a film that hardly lives up to its promise, or even its title. The idea behind this omnibus creation was to have six of the greatest American documentarians film some of the stories from Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's surprise 2005 bestseller which spun quirky number-crunching scenarios into (theoretically) mind-altering ways of looking at the world. The result is too much of a Frankenstein creation to either solidly deliver the book's thesis or exist as a film in its own right -- the differences between Morgan Spurlock and Alex Gibney are just too great to be contained by any one film.

Seth Gordon (The King of Kong) was put in charge of the introduction and interstitial pieces, which set a strangely giddy tone right from the start that jars mightily with some of the more serious material. To a bubbly, Carl Orff-ripoff musical backdrop, Gordon interviews poised and Gen. Petraeus-like Levitt (as the film would have it, a "rogue" University of Chicago economics professor) and the rumpled Dubner (the journalist who helped humanize Levitt's theories) about what Freakonomics is all about. Levitt puts it all down to utilizing data to illustrate different examples of his dictum that "human beings respond to incentives." The idea is that pouring metrics into different situational molds can create surprising results or lead to insights about human nature. That the Steves get along famously is well evident from Gordon's pieces - why he thought we needed these chummy introductions to the meat of the matter is hard to fathom.

Things continue on their rocky way with the first segment, A Roshanda by Any Other Name, by Morgan Spurlock. The Super Size Me one-trick artist shows his most irritating side in this facile rumination on baby naming conventions. Starting with the uncontroversial idea that reading parenting books isn't going to help new parents that much (the fact that they've bothered to read those books is more an indication of how they'll be at raising children), the piece sideswipes into an ill-considered tangent on the differences between names for white and black children, helped not at all by Spurlock's decision to stage reenactments for some of his anecdotes, and try for cheap humor during the whole bit.

Although directors Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing bring their usual empathic style (used so well in the harrowing Jesus Camp and revelatory 12th & Delaware) to the self-explanatory segment Can a 9th Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?, the final result is hardly more memorable than Spurlock's. The piece follows an experiment run by Levitt's department at a beaten-down Chicago high school where the freshmen are paid cash prizes for good grades. Grady and Ewing follow a couple of students -- one particularly dead-end skate kid who just figures he'll join the army after flunking out, and a precocious underachiever who matches an AP-potential brain with a Mad TV mouth -- through the ups and downs of the experiment, but don't get much of anywhere in the end. Their slow-burn style needs more room.

The high point in a film of mostly low ones is Taxi to the Dark Side director Alex Gibney's lacerating Pure Corruption. A beautifully composed study on the microlevel of what happened in Japan when rampant cheating in sumo wrestling was uncovered, morphs into a larger examination of cheating on a worldwide scale. While it can seem a stretch to equate the 2008 market meltdown to nearly-naked giants tussling in arenas, Gibney and his interviewees do a fine job deciphering what lies behind the posed question of "what happens to markets when people cheat?" One answer posited by this neon-lit, haunting piece is that as long as cheating is hidden from view and the pride of purity (whether in a nationalistic sport or a free-market fantasy) is kept intact, cheating may actually be good for business.

The most controversial equation in Levitt and Dubner's book was the chapter which argued that the stark falloff in American crime rates that started in the early 1990s could have been attributable less to societal changes or shifts in policing policy than it was to the legalization of abortion in 1973. (The fewer unwanted young males hanging around some two decades later could likely be responsible for the drop in crime.) Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight) puts a curiously flat spin on this inflammatory theory with his half-successful It's (Not Always) A Wonderful Life. Gravelly narration by Melvin Van Peebles lays out the stark facts against a distracting animated backdrop and a footage collage of Rudy Giuliani soundbites and shots of revolution in Romania (whose 1966 outlawing of abortion, and subsequent doubling of the birth rate, is posited as having led to the overthrow of Ceaucescu).

Some brain-teasing moments rise above the clutter in Jarecki's segment, but like the film as a whole, it never gels into anything even resembling an intellectual discourse -- or even a particularly solid argument. While this can't be blamed on the (mostly) sterling band of filmmakers gathered for the experiment, it remains odd how ill-formed most of their work was -- one directorial vision would have been a better direction.

Where's Errol Morris when you need him?

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