THE STORY – A woman is desperate to escape her life in Buffalo and finds a way by becoming a debt collector.
THE CAST – Zoey Deutch, Judy Greer, Jermaine Fowler, Noah Reid & Jai Courtney
THE TEAM – Tanya Wexler (Director) & Brian Sacca (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 95 Minutes
By Dan Bayer
Tanya Wexler’s “Buffaloed” begins as all good caper comedies should: With a curse word, yelled straight into the camera, and a gunshot. From there, it only gets more over the top and wacky, making for one of the best times you’ll have at the movies in the first quarter of 2020. The curse word and gunshot are both fired off by one Peg Dahl, played to manic comic perfection by Zoey Deutch. But since we don’t know who this woman is or why she’s clearly very upset, Deutch’s voiceover narration kicks in to tell us all about her, and more importantly, the place in which she lives: Buffalo, NY.
Buffalo, in addition to being the home of the Bills, is also the debt collection capital of America. But Peg didn’t know that when she was a kid. Growing up, she just knew that she was poor and didn’t want to be. She wanted to go to college, learn about business, and get rich. In order to do that, she needed to get out of Buffalo. Born with the gift of gab, it doesn’t take much for her to become a gifted con artist (or in her words, a hustler). Things never go according to plan, though, and Peg ends up in jail, racking up tens of thousands of dollars of debt in the process. One day after she gets out of jail, she decides to talk to one of the debt collectors constantly buzzing her mother’s phone and realizes that she would be much better at this than the bozo she’s talking to, so she talks her way into a job with the slightly sleazy Wizz (Jai Courtney), quickly besting the room full of male debt collectors at their own game.
One of the biggest delights of “Buffaloed” is watching Deutch’s performance as Peg becomes more entrenched in the kinda-legal-but-not-quite world of debt collection and discovers shadier and shadier behavior. Deutch plays it as though Peg is genuinely surprised to discover that she has a moral code after all; that cash may be king, but there are some lines she’s not willing to cross to get it. She’s surprised, then frustrated, and every time the frustration is directed somewhere else – Wizz, the business, the world – Deutch shades that frustration perfectly. She never loses sight of the fact that Peg is most frustrated with herself. She shades that frustration equally well, delineating how and when Peg is frustrated with herself for being born into a poor, underachieving family in Buffalo, for wasting her potential, for ending up in this business, and for not being willing to do something to put money in her wallet.
But for all that serious acting going on, Deutch never forgets that “Buffaloed” is a wild and crazy comedy, and she’s utterly unafraid to go as big and bold as the script calls for when needed (which is quite often). The rhythm of “Buffaloed” is just like that of a con artist playing a mark. It moves fast, pointing left and right and up and down, only occasionally pausing to listen as it takes you on a journey that seems like it could veer off course any second but is really specifically designed to confuse you into thinking that what it’s selling is what you want. That’s a pretty smart thing for a con artist caper comedy to do, but it can be exhausting. It also means that the film tries out a lot of different cinematic conceits that appear randomly and without warning. Basically, it’s “The Big Short” as a crime caper. It works far more often than it doesn’t, mostly due to Deutch’s rock-solid central performance that carries the film even through its roughest patches. Thanks to her, Peg is an endearingly manipulative, riotously funny wonder of a character. It’s the first truly great performance of the year, one that makes “Buffaloed” one of the most rewatchable films of 2020.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – The script’s restless attitude and snarky sense of humor are captured well by Tanya Wexler’s direction and the utterly fantastic lead performance of Zoey Deutch.
THE BAD – So much gets thrown at the wall to see what sticks that some of it inevitably falls by the wayside.
THE OSCARS – None