Buffaloed is one half of a pretty funny movie. The picture crackles along on the trademark energy of its star, Zoey Deutch (also irresistible in the recent Zombieland: Double Tap), and you keep wanting it to work even after it starts letting you down.
The hero here—if that's the word—is a young woman named Peg Dahl (Deutch), and her story is set in Buffalo, New York ("the epicenter of the Rust Belt," we're told, "a city whose favorite meal is a discarded chicken part"). Peg is sharp and ambitious, and she dreams of escaping the scruffy impoverishment in which she lives with her brother, JJ (Noah Reid, of Schitt's Creek), and their widowed mom, Kathy (Judy Greer, aces, as usual). When college time rolls around, Peg applies to an Ivy League school and gets accepted—but soon realizes she could never afford the enormous bank loans that would be required to cover tuition. So she decides to self-educate, with a major in dark finance.
After getting popped for a dodgy get-rich-immediately scheme, Peg is hauled into court…and the movie begins to wobble: the judge hearing Peg's case is eating from a plate full of chicken wings, right up there on the bench. (This judge will reappear later, and he'll still be nibbling on courtroom wings.) But okay, maybe this is just a passing narrative stutter. After Peg emerges from a prison stint, the movie gets back to being funny for a bit.
Buffalo is a major center for debt-collection agencies, and eventually Peg connects with a guy who runs one, an oily character called Wizz (Jai Courtney). Peg is intrigued by the debt industry—everyone seems to be making a lot of money in it—and Wizz explains how it works. Banks can't afford to spend time recovering money from delinquent debtors, so they sell their debt—their "paper" —at a deep discount to middlemen who sell it on to people like Wizz. And people like Wizz will do everything they can to collect the full amount of that debt, pocketing everything in excess of the discount price at which they purchased it.
"There are barely any laws regulating debt-collection," Peg tells us, suddenly speaking straight to the camera. "Agencies can garnish wages, revoke a license, put a lien on your house or business—and that's just the legal stuff."
This sucks, of course. But the movie has made another misstep in conveying the information. The breaking of the fourth wall is no longer an exotic storytelling device, and in this case it's clearly being lifted from such insider-y swindle films as The Big Short and The Wolf of Wall Street—and the borrowing is so shameless it disrupts your concentration.
But Deutch is a master of vocal inflection and facial expression, and she carries us happily along as the story sets Peg up for a violent conflict with her mentor-turned-enemy Wizz, and follows her as she rounds up a group of colorful characters to form a new collection agency of her own. Along the way, unfortunately, we're asked to believe that Peg could engineer a romance with the straight-arrow district attorney (Jermaine Fowler) who helped put her in prison. And at the movie's lowest point, we're presented with a scene, set in a restroom stall, that's entirely idiotic and completely unnecessary and I'll say no more. I can imagine a lot of viewers tuning out around here, although director Tanya Wexler keeps the movie wobbling along to little purpose. In the end, looking back, Peg tells us, "The only thing I knew was the hustle," which everyone who stayed past the restroom scene can take as a cue to finally slink away.