Maxed Out

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/23/07 14:57:15

"Deserves credit for what it does well."
3 stars (Average)

There are a lot of true things said in "Maxed Out", and the people it calls out deserve to get called out. I can't deny that the film accomplishes its goals: It communicates information to its audience in a clear, entertaining way. Still, anybody who has ever racked up a buch of credit card debt and lived to tell the tale can't help but notice what part director James Scurlock leaves out.

Before getting there, it is good practice to focus on what Maxed Out is versus what it is not. The film is a good primer on how credit card companies target the people least likely to pay them back in a timely fashion and then leverage their debt to create a steady but increasing income stream. When their clients fall too far behind, they package their debt as a commodity that can be sold in packages to debt collectors while lobbying politicians to make it harder to declare bankruptcy. Right now, the film points out, they've they've got a particularly sympathetic government: The Bush administration allowed MBNA to write the new bankruptcy law, appointed a credit card company executive who presided over massive fraud to a key administration position, and leads by example with massive deficit spending.

All of this is true, and Scurlock is good at putting it in front of an audience. He has knowledgeable people testify as to how the banking industry has changed (a former banker talks about how today's bank employees are expected to be salesmen, rather than investors) and also illustrates it with amusing footage from an old educational film on credit, pointing out how it was described as something to be earned in the 1950s as opposed to being given to college freshmen with a free t-shirt. He illustrates his points by building characters, whether it be the cartoonishly scummy men operating a collections company or the family devastated by their wife/mother's disappearance after the credit companies come calling.

The only trouble is that Scurlock's enthusiasm for attacking these eminently worthy targets frequently causes him to go too far. The national debt is a bad thing and something that will likely come to bite the U.S. in the tail eventually, but is it really relevant to a film primarily focused on predatory corporations hurting individuals? We're presented with plenty of stories about how the credit card companies and debt collectors hound people mercilessly, but the film only vaguely touches on the role lack of personal responsibility plays in getting people into that situation in the first place early on, and it frames it by showing lavish extravagances (a gated community in Las Vegas, a chat with Robin Leach). When it does refer to people living beyond their means, the people it refers to are not actually seen and spoken of in the past tense - they've committed suicide.

And I think that's going too far. Three of the four times we hear about people spending themselves into holes, the person winds up dead. The message is that predatory credit card companies are killing people, and I know that that sort of hyperbole would turn me away. I might be wrong about this, though; there's an argument to be made that this is a situation where the worst-case scenario has to be given a hard push, because otherwise people will be unmoved - sure, it ruined this guy, but these two were able to work their way out of it, and I can work hard at some later date.

This movie seems primarily targeted to young people - the college kids maxing out their credit cards before they get their diplomas - with its short run time, quick editing, and frequent use of music. If it's meant mainly to warn them, it does all right in that regard. It's still a little unfocused, but at least in a way that's not confusing.

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