Directed by Tanya Wexler.
Starring Zoey Deutch, Judy Greer, Jermaine Fowler, Noah Reid, Lusia Strus, Lorrie Odom, Raymond Ablack, Nicholas Carella, Paulyne Wei, James M. Connor, Brian Sacca, Jayne Eastwood, Kate Moyer, Alex Harrouch, Bill Lake, Barbara Gordon, Carolyn Scott, Jai Courtney.
Set in the underworld of debt-collecting and follows the homegrown hustler Peg Dahl, who will do anything to escape Buffalo, NY.
Buffaloed has such clear and profound influences that one immediately wants to research more about the filmmakers afterward, to which I did, and was not surprised a single bit upon learning that writer Brian Sacca is most known for a supporting role in Martin Scorsese’s 3-hour-long greed and debauchery epic The Wolf of Wall Street (he even has a small acting role). At times, I wanted director Tonya Wexler’s Buffaloed to reach a similar running time, fleshing out its many side characters and subplots along the way, and probably one more script rewrite leaving a less tidy ending.
Zoey Deutch’s Peg is not a good person, no matter how much she tries to convince herself and the audience via breaking the fourth wall explaining how debt collection works (think Adam McKay’s stylistic lecturing-the-viewers approach in The Big Short), or reiterating countless times that she is doing things by the books. That much becomes clear not only when she first joins a slimy homegrown debt collection agency and starts scamming others in return for her own chances at financial freedom, but more so when she has no moral conflictions regarding squeezing money out of an elderly widow that these lowlifes repeatedly hound over the phone.
Protagonists do not need to be good people; horrible individuals can always be compelling. Fortunately, that is the case for Peg as she is wildly ambitious and driven by a wide-ranging number of factors, encompassing everything from childhood inquisitiveness to grab life by the throat and get rich (an early scene has her around 10 years old giving a PowerPoint presentation about finances that is so non-layman terms that she seems like a child prodigy), clearing her own name (she gets arrested at the age of 18 for duplicating and selling a plethora of fake Buffalo Bills tickets as a means to raise college funds), and most intriguingly, her struggles as a woman to find independence and success in a cutthroat world dominated by men with shark teeth. This is also contrasted with her brother JJ (Noah Reid) who is perfectly content to earn a living paycheck-to-paycheck running his own bar.
There’s a scene towards the end of the film were Peg’s mother (a fantastic Judy Greer walking the line between loving her daughter unconditionally and reaching a breaking point of putting up with her shit) exclaims that she knows she taught her the differences between good and bad, and right and wrong. The never-ending shenanigans that increasingly become more illegal from Peg will have one question that sentiment, but at the end of the day, she is a flawed character that had a dream and went about retrieving that dream with no moral compass. More importantly, she couldn’t obtain her dream, so she turned to shady methods and somewhere along the way developed a ruthless persona as nasty as those she is working for (Jai Courtney has never been more charismatic, here playing a straight-up misogynistic weasel intent on burying Peg for daring to usurp the boys club ripping off her undeniable skill at this trade, even if it is ugly human behavior).
The point is that there is a lot to mine from this layered character and Zoey Deutch’s energized, go-getter, swing for the fences performance that feels like she studied the hell out of Leonardo DiCaprio’s take on Jordan Belfort (some early scenes of her on the phones starting out basically elicit déjà vu, although not as executed with as much flair or panache on the directing side of things). When it comes to everything else, the filmmakers go for a broader sense of comedy without developing a few key characters and dynamics.
Eventually, Peg assembles her own female team of con artists from all walks of life (a prostitute she knew in jail, an evangelical hypocrite that is comfortable with the scheming and elicits a few big laughs, and some more generally quirky but likable individuals). Obviously, this leads to a sort of boys against girls feuding among debt collectors that starts out as amusing pranks but wisely gets darker and more serious as tensions boil, yet the film also, unfortunately, feels restrained from going to some truly evil places. And that’s a shame; these are truly evil people. Instead, Buffaloed transforms itself into a lesson for Peg and offers chance after chance for redemption. Whether she chooses to go down that path or not doesn’t excuse the story from closing out with an upbeat ending going against much of what has come prior.
It also doesn’t help that Peg strikes up a relationship years later with the lawyer (Jermaine Fowler) that got her sent to jail (in a sequence that is weird for the sake of being weird, he sucks up to the judge talking about buffalo wings), fully intending on playing him to be an ally for her own illegal activity (he doesn’t take the bait). Nevertheless, along the way she proclaims she loves him for real, which is believable to an extent but is also massively underdeveloped and kind of makes both characters just look naïve and stupid. It’s another element that is given happier closure than it deserves. The frustrations quickly begin to pile up, but Zoey Deutch holds it all together. Her empowering approach to sticking it to the man will have you in her corner even though she is a scummy person breaking the law herself. It’s a shame the rest is undercooked and occasionally feels phony.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★
Robert Kojder is a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association and the Flickering Myth Reviews Editor. Check here for new reviews, friend me on Facebook, follow my Twitter or Letterboxd, check out my personal non-Flickering Myth affiliated Patreon, or email me at MetalGearSolid719@gmail.com