- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 8, 2007

James Scurlock’s “Maxed Out” is a beautifully shot and edited documentary with a snappy pace and hip edge that talks about what many of us are too afraid to: debt. It wraps a stinging indictment of modern financial institutions and a chilling look at the prevalence and effects of debt in a short, easily digestible coating. (It does leave a slightly bad aftertaste with one major ingredient left out. But more on that later.)

There are millions of stories to be told about this subject from myriad locales and economic strata. Mr. Scurlock uncovers a lot of them — particularly the ones that show the big guys (banks and collectors) getting fat off the little people (namely, consumers).

Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren discusses how “obscenely profitable” consumer lending is. Bright-eyed collections firm founders Robert Johnson and Chris Winkler brag about their “fun industry” while divulging their intimidation tactics in the same breath.

Janne O’Donnell and Trisha Johnson get choked up telling their tale: Each had a college-age child commit suicide after racking up thousands of dollars of credit card debt. The two moms now speak out against credit companies’ preying on youngsters.

“Maxed Out” takes on everything from the credit bureaus to the national debt, pawn shops and the housing market in Las Vegas. In the process, it peppers in political speeches, clips from “Leave it to Beaver”-era credit education films and pertinent (and shocking) statistics.

Who knew that financial ruin could make for such a cool, compelling — albeit leftist — narrative?

While fun to watch and filled with frightening real-life accounts of the lengths banks will go to get your money, the film leaves one stone almost completely unturned: Could part of the problem stem from the fact that Americans are forgetting how to live within their means? Is it the bakery’s fault that the customer ate the whole cake in one sitting?

The issue is much more complex than Mr. Scurlock would have audiences believe; his film opens with a Nevada-based real estate agent explaining how today’s home buyers are “maxing out the lots” to build gargantuan houses and using controversial lending practices to pay for something they couldn’t normally afford.

But the filmmaker drops that lead to pursue others that place the onus squarely on big corporations and the government. Americans can’t possibly learn to budget, he seems to argue, if their own government is setting such a bad example — and if they keep getting preapproved credit cards in the mail.

“Maxed Out” definitely does not max-out the discussion on debt. (Perhaps Mr. Scurlock is leaving room for a sequel: “Reigned In: How They Took Control Through Budgeting, Willpower and Expert Advice.”) He gets points, however, for walking into territory that more fainthearted filmmakers might run from and extra credit for making the journey so glossy and entertaining.

**1/2 TITLE: “Maxed Out”

ATING: Not rated (some disturbing thematic material)

CREDITS: Directed by James Scurlock

RUNNING TIME: 86 minutes

WEB SITE: www.maxedoutmovie.com


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