Directors: Seth Gordon, Alex Gibney, Morgan Spurlock, Heidi Ewing and Rachel Grady, Eugene Jarecki
Running time: 93 minutes
I was looking forward to watching this DVD. I had heard about the bestselling book by “rogue” economist Steven Levitt and journalist Stephen Dubner a while back but never got round to reading it and so I thought that watching the DVD would be the next best thing.
The DVD explores the causal effect of incentives on human behaviour in a given situation through four vignettes directed by highly-respected documentary filmmakers with transition segments featuring interviews with the book’s authors.
Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me) directs the first segment, “A Roshanda by Any Other Name,” in which the question is asked if a person’s name plays a significant part in determining that person’s destiny. Spurlock uses a lot of anecdotal evidence from the man on the street coupled with that of “experts” and comes to the conclusion that a person’s name does not influence his or her future.
I found this segment a bit patronising as it suggests that a “black” name is less likely to win a job interview than a “white” name. So, institutional racism is alive and well. Who didn’t know that? And the unabashed glee with which this segment is presented was also slightly unpalatable.
“Pure Corruption,” directed by Alex Gibney, was a little more insightful, exposing the darker side of Sumo wrestling in Japan. The ancient sport is held in almost sacrosanct regard in Japan, as it is based on traditional Shinto beliefs but according to Levitt, the data gleaned from match results show a pattern that suggests match fixing.
This is corroborated by a Japanese journalist and whistleblowers within the sport, who suspiciously died of the same mysterious respiratory illness in the same hospital on the same day. Collusion with the Japanese yakuza is also hinted at but again, while the subject matter is interesting, it is not revelatory.
Eugene Jarecki’s “It’s Not Always a Wonderful Life” offers the most startling hypothesis bizarrely using clips from Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and graphic animation to suggest that the reason that crime rate dropped dramatically in the United States in the early 1990s was due to the legalisation of abortion. Their reasons are plausible but not necessarily definitive.
The final part ("Can a Ninth Grader Be Bribed to Succeed?") is the most frustrating as it explores whether bribery can be a legitimate incentive for high school students to succeed. It follows the experience of two low-scoring teens in a school where a financial incentive is tied to getting good grades and proceeds to show that while one succeeds, the other just shrugs off his failure. The segment doesn’t offer any reasons for why this is so and this is where the film as a whole ultimately is a slight let-down. Interesting but not life-changing as the hype suggests.
This DVD is not for the kids but definitely interesting watch for parents who think of rewarding their children for good grades, and those who are in the process of picking names for their unborn child. - Review by S.N.