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'Buffaloed': Debt Collecting For Fun And Profit

Kathy (Judy Greer) looks concerned, a thing Judy Greer does a lot in movies, in <em>Buffaloed</em>.
Magnolia Pictures
Kathy (Judy Greer) looks concerned, a thing Judy Greer does a lot in movies, in Buffaloed.

In 2017, Zoey Deutch managed to carry Flower, a brisk but slight comedy about an exuberant young hustler with Daddy issues. She does it again in Buffaloed, in which she plays pretty much the same character, but confronts a different social evil. Flower's heroine battled pederasts; Buffaloed's rattles collection agencies.

In the earlier movie, Pops was in prison. This time he's dead, leaving only fond memories and a pile of debt. Peg Dahl (Deutch) has always known how to make money — a flashback shows her as a preteen Warren Buffett wannabe — and she doesn't sweat the legality of her schemes. Her mother (Judy Greer) is appalled, although not a model citizen herself: She operates an unlicensed beauty salon in her home. Peg's long-suffering brother JJ (Noah Reid) runs a bar that's far from upscale, but appears to be legit.

Buffalo really does have a reputation for unscrupulous collection agencies; several have been busted in recent years. The Rust Belt city also has the Bills and sauced chicken wings, both of which are the source of all too many gags in Brian Sacca's sitcom-level script. It's selling counterfeit Bills tickets that earns Peg a jail term, and by the time she's released the family's financial situation is even more alarming. Then Peg gets a call from an inept bill collector and has an epiphany.

Deciding that collection is just another form of sales, Peg goes to work for the thuggish Wizz (Jai Courtney), who runs an agency that may not be any sleazier than the competition. Peg excels, but soon becomes disillusioned — with Wizz, not with shaking down deadbeats. She starts her own company, which sparks a nasty feud with her former boss. Peg's most significant ally is her sort-of boyfriend, Graham (Jermaine Fowler), who happens to be the earnest African American junior prosecutor who sent her to prison.

Director Tanya Wexler supposes that the debt racket is as bewildering as the higher-stakes machinations detailed in The Big Short, so she emulates that movie's lively mix of the satirical and the tutorial. Peg narrates the action in voiceover and sometimes addresses the camera directly, explaining how collectors extort cash they're not actually owed.

Such storytelling tactics made more sense in The Big Short, which delved into complex transactions and juggled overlapping events and multiple major players. In Buffaloed, only one character really matters.

Peg's primacy can be a problem for the story. When Peg starts her own collection business, she enlists a crew that includes such seemingly hapless figures as an ex-hooker, a Christian evangelist, and the woman who used to beat her up in jail. But these unlikely recruits all do the job well, which undercuts the movie's insistence that Peg is something special.

A sort of manic pixie scam girl, Peg is the center of the film's universe because she's written that way, and because she's played by an attractive, engaging actress. As in Flower, Deutch's character eventually develops what appears to be actual concern for the people around her, but for most of the film she's dismayingly self-absorbed. Perhaps Buffaloed moves so quickly because if it ever slowed down, viewers would notice that Deutch is much more likable than a real-world Peg would be.

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Mark Jenkins reviews movies for, as well as for, which covers the Washington, D.C., film scene with an emphasis on art, foreign and repertory cinema.
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