"Maxed Out" is going to make you furious. It's a viewing experience specifically designed to get the angry juices flowing, forcing anyone who sits down with it to confront their financial lifestyle and how they recognize monetary difficulty.
James Scurlock's toxic-shock documentary has the yearning to change the way people view the credit card culture of American society. That's an ambitious goal, but worth every moment the filmmaker can devote to the topic. Just addressing such a crucial subject is half of the battle for "Maxed Out." The rest of the film simply has to locate great arguments to help sell the idea of taking personal financial responsibility seriously.
Scurlock does come with a parade of stunning information and teary testimonials, and "Maxed Out" benefits from his homework and careful planning. The picture starts off lightly, using the Enron business model to explain how many of the rich are paying for their expensive living spaces. After that, the film tears off on a bumpy journey that drills to the core theme of the film: the credit card, and how it's killing America.
I wouldn't call witnessing how the credit card companies rake in their money exactly shocking, but it is alarming. "Maxed Out" paints a vivid picture of how these predatory corporations swoop in and "save" the poor and the needy, hiding insane interest rates and assorted rules and violations in the small print trusting (hoping) that the individual will eventually trip up. It's legal, but increasingly devious in intention, especially compared to the calmer credit seas of 30 years ago.
Scurlock wants the viewer to see the ravages of credit card debt on the faces of the average American. Unable to keep up with their bills, the interviewees are stuck in a whirlpool of debt; unable to achieve the slightest bit of hope. For many, the situation will take years to recover from. For others, suicide is the answer. If there's anything "Maxed Out" is especially crafty at, it would be painting a portrait of confusion and despair, and the picture milks this mood for every sympathetic moment it can find.
The documentary also examines college campus credit sign-up practices, the efforts of the government to keep America in debt and the vice-like grip lobbyists have on Washington, Suze Orman and her deceptions, increasingly whorish ways some younger people are considering to pay off their debts, and the plight of the pawn shop owner, who has seen the business change from one of desire to one of feverish need in the last few years.
The best venom is saved for the debt collectors. To be fair, these men and women of cubical power are justified in their purpose - you borrow money, you should pay back money - but how these smug idiots go about their business is enough to make you snap the DVD in half. Arrogant, deceptive, and celebratory with their practices of humiliation, these bottom feeders of the industry deserve an entire movie of their own.
"Maxed Out" is presented in anamorphic widescreen (1.78:1 aspect ratio). An HD documentary, the DVD has trouble with fleshtones, which tend to register in the cherry and pink ranges. The image is stable with little in the way of defects.
The 2.0 Dolby Digital sound mix for "Maxed Out" is given very little to do. Interviews are clearly recorded, leaving only the occasional soundtrack cue to burst into the soundscape. A modest effort, but an acceptable one.
The supplements on the "Maxed Out" DVD further the theme of the film, either through deleted moments or a straight-up commercial. No true investigation of the documentary is found here, but this modest round-up of supplements should satisfy the curious viewer.
"The Wise Use of Credit" (running 11 minutes) is a B&W short from 1960. With only snippets used during the film, it's interesting to see this short, hosted by "Mr. Money," in its entirety. Granted, the lack of Mike, Tom Servo, and Crow in the corner of the screen is unsettling. However, the short reveals a forward-thinking attitude even 47 years ago when it came to the responsible usage of credit.
"What Is a Credit Report?" (7 minutes) is a dry deleted scene with consumer advocate attorney David Szwak explaining how reports work and how they can be exploited.
"Bankruptcy: A Life-Changing Experience" (5 minutes) is a second deleted scene, this time featuring lawyer Elizabeth Warren as she discusses the psychological devastation that follows the declaration of bankruptcy.
"Dave Ramsey on Personal Responsibility" (5 minutes) is a wild burst of info from the radio personality on how to shape up your money troubles. Some interesting info here, but from a guy who seems too slick and polished for his own good.
"Americans for Fairness in Lending" (5 minutes) is a commercial for the cause.
When it comes time to expose the benefits of fiscal responsibility, "Maxed Out" isn't the strongest tool to show a potential credit care nightmare customer. The film is more comfortable telling sob stories than getting uncomfortably tough on borrowers, but I can understand the desire to pull back on the venom to make a distinctive point. "Maxed Out" is sharp documentary on a vicious topic, and if it fails to encapsulate an entire argument into 85 minutes, it lets enough trouble out of bag to make a vivid point about the crumbling of America's financial health.
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