It’s a Fee Country: Maxed Out’s America can’t get out of hock.
It’s a Fee Country: Maxed Out’s America can’t get out of hock.

Maxed Out also deals with untimely deaths—strange, given that it’s a documentary about credit cards. Writer, director, and Michael Moore wannabe James D. Scurlock takes on an incendiary topic for his feature debut, but instead of becoming outraged, you might just end up rolling your eyes at the mawkishness of his approach.

Scurlock begins by tagging along with a Las Vegas–area real-estate agent, who pulls out of the driveway of her ginormous home in her fancy car while explaining her take on ideal living: First you have to get into a “master plan,” which means a super-fancy gated community. Then you start adding on: “You just make [your house] as big as you can!” She talks about a special kind of financing that allows homeowners to remodel without, allegedly, further breaking the bank. It’s likely that buyers who get in on it don’t know that this approach has been done before—a footnote explains that it’s the same sort of numbers manipulation that Enron used.

From there, Scurlock talks to economics experts and people undone by credit to prove that our country is becoming a two-class system. He gets somewhat horrific insights from collection agents and debt buyers; they’ll try to glean your interests and befriend you, and if that doesn’t work, well, most of us have probably had to turn off our answering machines at some point to avoid their next tactic. The film delivers statistics on the number of credit-card offers mailed out each year (approximately 4 billion) and the fees slapped on if debtors make one wrong move (late charges and the like have risen 160 percent over the last five years). The main message? Elizabeth Warren, a Harvard Law School professor, says it succinctly: “Consumer lending is obscenely profitable.”

Though Scurlock is largely all over the place in piecing together his interviews and stories, plenty of Maxed Out cuts through the confusion and will anger anyone who’s ever filled out a credit application. He spends a great deal of time on the tales of the less fortunate, including an impoverished family whose developmentally disabled son was offered a card, or the less informed, such as the college students who get accosted in the halls by salesmen luring them to their first Visa with a free T-shirt. It’s no secret that being poor or having a past bankruptcy makes lenders trip over themselves to get to you: They’re gambling that you won’t be able to pay, that they can raise finance charges and slap on late fees, and that there’s not a whole lot you can do about it except chip away at the debt for the rest of your life. One bank, Providian, was charged with actually holding, even shredding, customers’ checks in order to assess late fees. More infuriating: One of Providian’s directors was appointed by the Bush administration to help clean up corporate America. (Here, Scurlock wisely inserts bits from a comic riffing on being poor to keep your head from exploding.)

But Scurlock goes too far in painting his unpalatable portrait. He includes stories of not one, not two, but three suicides, all allegedly caused by debts that got out of hand. A 57-year-old widower is shown sobbing after holding a garage sale and admits that she, too, considered killing herself. The stories are believable, but the pile-on makes the ultimate message less one that will motivate viewers to take action than to shrug it off as an impossible situation to change. As Warren herself melodramatically says of those in deep: “Death will be the only form of debt discharge that they will ever see.”