I have not yet read the wildly popular book this collection of documentary shorts is based on, but the premise seems to be based around incentives and, following the correct incentives, the predictions of human behaviour. The film is broken up into four distinct segments, with bookending and bridging interviews with the book's authors Stephen Dubner and Steven Levitt. It's an intriguing concept for a film and an even more intriguing line up of documentary film-makers. It's a shame then, that it doesn't really come together.
After a quick intro with Stephen and Steven, Morgan Spurlock is first off the block with A Roshanda by Any Other Name. It's an examination of the impact of a child's name on their life. As it's Spurlock the segment is played fairly humorous and skims the line separating documentary and fiction by having the majority of his play out with actors. There are some appearances by talking heads, discussing things such as the rise of unique "black" names and how someone with a "white" sounding name is more likely to succeed in the workplace than someone with a "black" name. Frankly, it's hardly revelatory stuff and having the breezy, humorous section at the start of the film only serves to unbalance everything that follows.
Alex Gibney's docu-investigation into cheating in the world of sumo, Pure Corruption, offers a similarly slick but more traditional documentary take on the content. The investigation itself is somewhat fascinating; sumo is an ancient Japanese past-time, steeped in honour & tradition and the conflict between that and the reality of cheating rigged matches is really great dramatic stuff. Gibney is gifted at making the investigation of data - numbers upon numbers upon numbers - watchable. But again, the conclusions reached are hardly revelatory. Cheating and match fixing in sport? Even one as ancient as sumo - wow. Big surprise. And Gibney then ties it in to Wall Street - you can see the link, with venerable, previously thought sacrosanct institutions brought low by cheating and scandal - but it feels a little tenuous. Again, no real surprises or hidden secrets revealed here.
Eugene Jarecki's It's Not Always a Wonderful Life offers the most intriguing revelations in the whole film. Jarecki explores the dramatic drop in crime at the beginning of the 90's just when all the pundits were predicting the rise of some sort of super-crime. The reasons given for the crime-rate drop didn't jibe with one of the Stephen's, so he looked into the data more. What he found was actually a little astonishing: the crime-rate at the start of the 90's dropped in large part because of the legalisation of abortion some 20-30 years before with Roe v. Wade. This led to less children being born to unwilling parents and therefore not getting mixed up in bad business. It's one of the better segments, actually revealing something you probably had never considered before.
Heidi Ewing & Rachel Grady's Can a Ninth Grader be Bribed to Succeed follows an experiment in an American school. It is the closest to what is traditionally considered a documentary, in that it documents the experiment rather than animating, or dramatising pieces over talking heads/narration. This part of the film is lit up by one of the students: Urail King, a smart, fast-talking and charismatic salesman of a kid. He wants the money offered and he wants to be eligible for the monthly draw. He is motivated, if not focussed ('cos he's a kid after all). The complete flip-side to Urail is one kid who just really can't be bothered. It seems he can't be bribed and continues to flunk everything. So, the answer to the question of "can a ninth grader be bribed to succeed?" is "yes". And "no". It would have perhaps benefited from widening the study.
Unfortunately these four segments (and wrap around interviews) from "six rogue filmmakers" don't actually offer up any incendiary, "secret world" shattering conclusions. It works best as a reminder to look for less obvious causes for effects. For a documentary with so much possibility to offer, and from six excellent documentarians I was left neither shaken or stirred.