Maxed Out

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 04/25/07 01:39:48

"This review comes with an introductory 19.5% APR."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2007 DEEP FOCUS FILM FESTIVAL: “Maxed Out” opens and closes with one of comedian Louis C.K.’s best stand-up routines. In it, he bemoans the common practices of banks in which accounts are charged fees for not having enough money in them: “They charged me fifteen dollars. That’s how much it costs to only have twenty dollars.” You may have been - or currently are - in a state where you find that yes, your funds are indeed “grossly insufficient.” “Maxed Out” may be your new rallying cry.

The film, the feature debut of filmmaker James Scurlock (not to be confused with fellow documentarian Morgan Spurlock), is a collection of hard luck stories, rabble-rousing investigation, and interviews with some of the creepiest money men you’ll ever meet. The subject is predatory lending, be it from credit card companies or banks offering high interest loans to those so desperate that accepting outrageous terms is their only way out of one nightmarish financial situation (even though, of course, it only drops them into another).

Let’s start with the hard luck stories, although that term may seem too glib for what truly are somber and significant experiences. We meet families whose credit card debt has driven loved ones to suicide. An investigative reporter travels the deep South interviewing poor families swindled into loans - including a mentally handicapped man tricked into signing himself into serious debt. A woman in Minnesota is accused of fraud after a clerical error lists her as being deceased.

That last example leads us into one of the film’s most disheartening points: the credit score system is too flawed and too private. Companies in charge of ranking credit scores refuse to explain how they determine such numbers, nor will they clarify why they need access to court records and other non-financial personal records. Worse still, Scurlock asserts that over ninety percent of Americans have at least one error on their credit report. Why not clean it all up? Because they just don’t have to.

More furious muckraking comes in the questioning of bank officials, if indirect (no bank representatives appear on screen outside of file footage from Congressional appearances and news clips). Why are banks so eager to give credit cards to the percentage of the population most certain to be unable to pay off such loans? How can banks determine the credit of a college student? Would a financial company really find that profits earned from late fees and other charges are so great that they outweigh losses from bad debt? Do credit card companies really shred customers’ checks in order to cheat late fees out of them? (Never mind any proof or further inquiry to this last statement; the movie takes one man’s testimony at face value.)

We do get face time with a couple of debt collectors, guys who find no tactic too slimy, no threat too disturbing, as long as the poor guy on the other end of the phone agrees to pay up. I’m not sure which is more unsettling, the amount of access they have to anyone’s private information, or the methods they use to scare people into paying. (One caller’s favorite: calling family and neighbors - a sure road to embarrassment.)

But here’s the thing: while these scenes are certain to get one’s blood boiling, they take us off the track. Debt collectors aren’t in the same category as predatory lenders. Their methods may be questionable at best and frightening at worst, but they aren’t responsible for ridiculous loan conditions. They seem to be included here merely out of a catch-all “companies that earn derision from people who have money problems” approach. Which makes it odd, then, that Scurlock fails to follow up on payday-advance and check-cashing operations; the movie mentions them now and then, but never studies them.

Scurlock also has a habit of jumping around from point to point with a severe lack of focus. He’ll follow a story just long enough to get to the meat of the financial problem, then jump away seemingly at random. One of the first people we meet is a man who declared bankruptcy as a way of avoiding his ex-wife’s bills; the rest of the movie doesn’t get around to discussing bankruptcy issues until much later. Why not save his story for that part of the film?

Or what of the rich woman who’s building a new home outside of Las Vegas? Is she here to point out the insane house prices these days, or to discuss the seemingly problematic home loan she took? Or is she merely here, as the final shots suggest, for the audience to boo her for having so much money?

Scurlock doesn’t think to answer that question. He’s too busy shouting questions of his own, and yes, they are very important, but if only he’d stop for a minute to get his thoughts organized, “Maxed Out” would be such a more effective film. As it is, it’s a documentary that incites despite itself. It’s a slapdash affair, one that gets all the facts together but can’t quite get them in the right order, yet still winds up with a raw, gritty power fueled by honest anger.

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