The word Buffalo often refers to the majestic bison that roams North America. It also happens to be the largest city in New York. And it’s known to be a word for the act of bullying. All three definitions would best describe what you see in Tanya Wexler’s indie comedy, Buffaloed. The film starring Zoey Deutch centers on the seedy underworld of debt collection in the rust belt city that is full of hard-working people who find themselves in debt or inheriting other people’s debt.
Deutch plays Peg Dahl, a woman with limitless ambition who is stuck in the city of Buffalo because her mother (Judy Greer) is struggling to pay off her husband and her own debt with her unlicensed hair salon business. Early on in the film, Peg points out how the city is only known for its best meal being a discarded chicken part and a football team that consistently disappoints. So, she makes a plan to get out. Rather than dive into what children usually spend their time doing, she studies up on Warren Buffet, compiling financial advice, and studying profit margins. This only builds upon her “gift for gab,” which she uses to create schemes that could potentially make her enough money to get herself into an ivy league school. Though these hustles fill in as the comedy bits, Peg’s act of selling counterfeit Bills tickets lands her in jail.
The irony of her get rich quick schemes puts her further into debt as she has to pay the victims restitution and the lawyer fees. But it’s a call from a debt collector that gives her an epiphany. She can make just as much money in a quick amount of time by making threats if the debt isn’t paid up. So, she works for the sleazy Whizz (Jai Courtney), a man running a grimy debt collection agency in a grungy warehouse. Unfortunately, it is a job that, despite her God-given talents and outmuscling her co-workers that doesn’t give her much respect. So she sets forth to create her own agency, much to the disappointment of her supportive mother, bartending brother (Noah Reid), and then there’s the on again off again boyfriend Graham (Jermaine Fowler), the junior prosecutor who sent her to prison.
The heart of Buffaloed comes from Deutch’s charm and wit. She excels at crafting schemes that will help her get out of debt. But she becomes disillusioned by the business, and soon loses sight of what is right and wrong. See, despite this highly questionable job, Peg has a heart of gold. She doesn’t intend to hurt anybody; it just so happens that she works in an occupation where she has to dupe people into paying off their debts or relieving themselves of the burdens of debt.
And that’s what makes Buffaloed work so well. It’s when the story is focused on her and the supporting unit. Whizz does make for a nice adversary as an overpowering and violent competitor who knows how to make his rivals back down. But he’s never met someone quite like Peg. So, when she recruits her friends, other convicts, and a door to door Christian salesmen, she expands that unit. Unfortunately, this takes away from her story, as the film now has to dedicate time to watching her recruits be a part of the con.
While it may be difficult to understand how debt collection works in this day and age, and though the film isn’t exactly an in-depth look at how the shady business works, Brian Sacca’s script gives audiences these digestible and humorous tutorials that are informative about scams and government oversight. It also falls into the usual gangster tropes and the eye or an eye escalation. Peg is the plucky, ambitious woman who sometimes does not see the forest beyond the trees, Whizz is the greedy repulsive greasy-haired criminal, etc., etc. These are the typical characters seen in schemey films, and the gags and somewhat self-deprecating humor about the city of Buffalo add a whimsy touch. But most of the film centers on what Peg does in order to make a name for herself. And the stakes are raised when she is given an adversary and a crisis of conscience. Though the former only adds to her ego, the latter shifts her attention to whether or not she will have any integrity left at the end of this. All of that just gives the film a bit more nuance.
Buffaloed is out in theaters now.