Review: Maxed Out

by Mr. Cheap

A while back I watched the documentary “Maxed Out”, and recently finished reading the book by the same name. James Scurlock developed both at the same time, and its interesting to see people profiled in one medium, then learn more about them in the other.

Both works put a personal face on America’s debt crisis by interviewing some of the people who have been hardest hit. Mr. Scurlock talks to mothers of university students who committed suicide when they couldn’t repay their credit card debts, the family of a woman who committed suicide when her husband was about to find out about her massive gambling debts, a soldier in Iraq whose wife is facing bankruptcy back home, debt collectors, pawn brokers and debt experts such as Dave Ramsey and Elizabeth Warren.

At the end of both works you’re left with a pretty bleak view of the financial situation of modern Americans. Its interesting to have a human face put on a problem and you definitely feel bad for all the people the author/director talks to.

The book and movie’s biggest failing, common to works of this nature, is that they rely on anecdotal evidence to convince you of the problem. They say look at poor person Y and how they suffer. Isn’t it awful? Whatever is causing Y must be stopped at all cost! Given the tight lens they can put on that person and their problems, whatever solution is proposed seems quite reasonable (James Scurlock advocates increased oversight of financial institutions and legal restraints on the marketing of credit cards – for the record I don’t think either idea is the worst I’ve ever heard).

The problem with anecdotal evidence is we don’t know if these are isolated cases. We’re left with the idea that their are hordes of people out there just like the ones profiled in the book and movie, but without comprehensive data its hard to be sure.

If someone wants to help ONE SPECIFIC PERSON, sure tell me about them. If you want to make changes to society as a whole, I feel you need to keep the discussion ABOUT society as a whole. Picking isolated cases and making policy changed based on them seems like a dangerous way to go about things to me. The financial institutions could probably make a movie profiling the dastardly deeds of people who committed fraud and leave us drooling at the end for harsher penalties and less legal protection for debtors.

If you’ve read the book or watched the movie, I’d definitely recommend the other if you enjoyed the first (read that sentence a few times until it make sense). If you haven’t seen either, but are interested in the real stories of Americans who have had their lives seriously damaged by debt, I’d recommend both.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

1 telly

Ummm, ok, I read the sentence a couple times but I still don’t get if you’re telling me the book is better than the movie or vice versa!

Nonetheless, good review. I have the movie on my “to-see” list.

2 Kyle

I saw the movie and thought it was a bit sensationalist. Like Michael Moore, Scurlock can be described less as a documentarian and more of an editorialist. Neither particularly tries to give you the whole story; rather they frame the discussion quite intentionally from their own position and attempt to convince you they’re right.

3 bigasssuperstar

If you want to see a film with the same goals as Maxed Out, but presented with less tact and a more victim-oriented perspective, see In Debt We Trust.

Between the two, Maxed Out is the more competent and compelling of the two … though I agree it seems to overlook the impact of a consumerist lifestyle in favour of making the credit industry the boogeyman of choice.

4 Mr. Cheap

telly: I guess I should try making my writing legible rather than just laugh at myself how convoluted it is. What I was TRYING to say there was if you’ve enjoyed one, try the other (book or movie).

BASS: Will check that out. I enjoyed the secret life of credit cards (which the baglady turned me on to – check out her post about it and Maxed out).

5 ConnieB

Thanks for the review. I was going to check this out and now, based of the review I am not.

I am all for anything that actually presents real solutions, but if I want drama, I’ll turn on the afternoon soaps or read a trashy novel.

A whole lot of people are in big trouble right now and frankly, I think this like this just capitalize on them rather than actually helping them.

I do appreciate the review. Saved me some money and some time!

6 Gates VP

Quoted For Truth: The book and movies biggest failing, common to works of this nature, is that they rely on anecdotal evidence to convince you of the problem.

For something real about US debt, see this YouTube video about the problem. Real numbers and research, lots of good information, no victim mentality.

It’s a different perspective and I’m still going to blame people for their own spending problems, but Elizabeth Warren (author of “The Two Income Trap”) definitely makes a lot of good points.

7 Traciatim

Wow Gates VP, thanks for the incredible link, that talk was profound. I watched both Maxed Out and In Debt we trust and found them both to be far too superficial to be of any value. I left each thinking “What a bunch of whiners, just stop buying crap IDIOTS!” and not what the creators were trying to convey about the credit card industry.

Warren really drives the point home with real data and no sob stories. It was far more impactful than Maxed Our and In Debt we Trust combined.

8 Jerry

(I somehow doubt that the families of people who killed themselves over debt would call their stories “sensationalistic” – but then again, I haven’t seen the film yet.) I, too, tend to think that people need to quit buying ridiculous stuff that they can’t afford, and that alone will lead to some excellent insurance for managing debt!
Jerry

9 Gates VP

YW Tim.

I hope that others watch and share as well. Canada definitely has a broader safety net than the US. But underneath, I think Warren’s talk really encapsulates “the Recession” for what it is: a return to fiscal normalcy and long-term viability.

10 Mr. Cheap

Jerry: If you ever see it I’d be interested in hearing whether you think its sensational or not. I agree with your second point, but tellingly it never came up in either work. People were painted as passive victims of the big, bad, financial industry, never as people who had made some bad choices (which reading between the lines for every story, you could see that bad choices must have been made at some point).

Gates: I really enjoyed the talk you posted as well, thanks!

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