It is a risky prospect to make a film about debt collection. What pleasure is there in seeing people who owe money suffer—or seeing debt collectors possibly destroy families? Love & Debt shows both sides as Travis (Casey Abrams) gets his first case at a debt collection agency to recover approximately $80,000 from Henry Warner (Tom Cavanagh), a marketing executive who has just lost his job. Henry hasn’t told his wife Karen (Bellamy Young) about their dire financial situation, and when she does find out, the high-strung Karen goes ballistic.
Love & Debt focuses most of its energy on Henry and Karen’s struggles. His despair is palpable—in part because Cavanagh’s expression is perpetually hangdog—but his storyline is foolishly played for laughs. When he takes a job as a car share driver, Henry gets abused by a cabbie who claims he stole his job. In contrast, Karen comes off as shrill. Saddled with caring for three children—the oldest, teenager Melissa (Bailee Madison), is predictably sullen–Karen also has to battle with her mother Deb (Brynn Thayer) who doesn’t have an unfiltered thought she won’t share. Karen’s only solace is her part-time gig as an organizer for Mrs. Markson (Lee Meriwether), which is ha-ha ironic given how messy Karen’s life is.
Director Valerie Landsburg plays all the comic moments—Deb walking in on Henry masturbating, or Melissa getting a belly ring much to her parents’ chagrin—in predictable sitcom style. Better are scenes in the debt collection agency where a cast of colorful supporting characters, including Carl (Ed Marinaro), Allison (Yeardley Smith), and Johnny (Erick Avari), supply the film with some verve. There is a nice sight gag of Travis’s desk being filled with crushed cigarette butts from its previous owner. This is far better than a silly moment where Henry whacks at a speed camera in frustration after being caught running a light.
Love & Debt tries to humanize its character especially as Travis works to develop a relationship with Henry and his family in the hope of collecting the money owed. But his nice-guy efforts are inappropriate. The film actually generates most of its sympathy after Karen storms out of the house and Melissa helps Henry try to keep things together because she wants to keep her family together. Bailee Madison’s performance as Melissa is one of the few bright spots in the film. She makes her transformation from bratty to responsible to vulnerable credible.
Alas, too much of the film consists of life lessons that come across as preachy, such as what Karen learns from Mrs. Markson as they talk about their families. Likewise, Travis’ observations about the system being broken are hardly profound.
Arguably the best thing about Love & Debt is that it does not provide any easy answers to the problems it raises. Oddly, if nothing else, this curious comedy-drama gets the messiness of life right.