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Debt is the monster in 'Maxed Out'

Do you grade a movie like "Maxed Out" on intentions or execution? On the loudness of the alarm bell it so righteously rings or on the discordant tones and missing notes? James Scurlock's documentary horror show has a critical message to impart -- your credit cards are out to kill you -- and a naive, ham - handed way of imparting it. Maybe you just advise readers to see it and hope they bring their common sense.

"Maxed Out" presses the case that America has become a debtor nation on every conceivable level -- the average American family owes at least $9,000 -- and that banking corporations are doing everything in their power to keep it that way. Credit - card recruiters appear on campus, promising low rates and trapping students in a never-ending spiral. (Scurlock interviews two moms whose college-age children hung themselves over mounting debts.)

Mortgages are traded from company to company until the terms change for the worse and home owners are forced to foreclose. Bait-and-switch interest rates guarantee you'll end up paying $2 for every $1 in credit - card purchases. Paying the monthly minimum just means you fork over money until you die. Late payments? That's what banks want, since they can jack up rates further.

Where's the government? Please. "Maxed Out" trots out C-SPAN footage of Capitol Hill rolling over to corporate lobbyists, passing an anti-bankruptcy measure in 2005. President Bush's number - one campaign contributor, we're told, is the country's second - largest lender, MBNA.

"Maxed Out" reserves special contempt for the bottom feeders, fly-by-night collectors who buy up bad paper. They call neighbors and bosses, exacting maximum humiliation until someone, anyone, pays up. "We're like a dating service for debt," says one smug frat boy-turned-repo man.

Scurlock talks to a Harvard Law professor (Elizabeth Warren , cogent and worried), to the owner of a "yuppie pawn shop" that doubles as a bank for the Rolex-owning semi-rich. He digs up a hokey old documentary from the early '60s, featuring sober old "Mr. Money" advising students that "credit isn't given, it's earned."

Only once, though, does the notion of (dare I say it?) personal fiscal responsibility get an airing, when a sweet old lady facing foreclosure admits, "If I'd read the fine print, they were right -- I signed my life away." Well, yes, dear, you did. "Maxed Out" correctly points out that banking corporations can be rapacious, profit-addled entities dedicated to gulling the foolish, but in the agit-pop tradition of Michael Moore, it goes for the celebrity gotcha: shots of Bush -- a fish in a barrel at this point -- author Suze Orman (we're told she has a deal with credit-report company FICO but we're not given any details), Jerry Falwell , Robin Leach . Why Robin Leach? Mostly so he can say "No one wants to watch 'Lifestyles of the Poor and Unknown.' "

Would that Scurlock had probed that side of things: The American obsession with stuff and the culture that sells it to us 24/7. "Maxed Out" focuses on how much we're in hock without ever really wondering why we need to buy. What hole in our souls are we filling with that new iPod? Why are we terrified to live within our means? To go there, you have to ask why people feel they're simply owed the American dream. To go there, you have to blame us as well as Them.

Ty Burr can be reached at For more on movies, go to