Buffaloed (2019)

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Food: Grabbed a quick bite at the bar of Wei West near the theater. Enjoyed an order of salmon avocado sushi rolls and edamame which had sea salt and a sprinkle of chili powder. Got the warm house sake and a Tsingtao. No complaints here if you’re ever near Regal Cinemas Battery Park and looking for Asian cuisine – I recommend.

Film: Buffaloed is a story of small town south Buffalo, New York where one young girl decides she does not want to grow up to be a poor housewife who can only feed her children cheap wings, and takes after her late father, a known gambler, and devices a plan. Peg Dahl (Zoey Deutch) is a natural born hustler. Sporting over-sized sweats and pig tails, she discovers she has a knack for get-rich-quick schemes, anything from selling kids cigarettes at school to scalping Buffalo Bills tickets to fans headed to the games, she stores her cash in boxes in her closet and saves up to one day make it into an ivy league school and make it big.

However, as smart as she might be, she is not smart enough. One arrest after another, she digs herself a hole of debt, and after interacting with an unimaginative debt collector, she finds herself pursuing a new dream. Buffalo is an apparent hub for underground debt collectors that run like gangs and this film attempts to shine a light on this growing business. Peg talks her way into a job working for the “kingpin” collector, Whiz (Jai Courtney) and immediately tops the board before deciding she is unhappy getting such a small percentage of the funds she collects, and goes out on her own. This inevitably creates a war with the others, and the film devolves into a bit of a mess.

For a story like this to work, the main character has to either be an eccentric and/or messy savant (such as we saw with Christian Bale’s character in The Big Short) or a brilliant poser (see Catch Me If You Can / or Amy Adams in American Hustle.) Peg Dahl is neither and both and the film frustratingly cannot figure out what kind of story it is trying to tell.

Despite Deutch bringing this character to life with a strong and accurate Western New York accent, and fully committing to a vibrant and determined personality, the arc of this plot just fails to make sense as a story worth telling.

Even while being better at the job itself than anyone else, she can’t seem to beat them. Not only is she not as smart as the movie wants you to believe she is, she is also not very good at hiding it. There are several moments where she breaks the fourth wall to explain complicated financial jargon (basically just what debt is – which most laymen know already), but the film fails to explain how the actual underground debt collecting business works. It fails to properly articulate why it is so detrimental to uneducated and lower class communities to be intimidated and manipulated by criminals into overpaying unwarranted debts. Our lead goes to jail multiple times, hurts everyone close to her, barely makes up for it, and the film, lastly, still does not convince us that she learned anything from any of it.

This is a perfect example of a film that has a lot of potential, but ultimately falls flat. The director Tanya Wexler spoke about how she began throwing out all of her meticulous rules on directing and went for a more spontaneous approach, which she felt was more in line with the tone of the film and Peg’s personality, but I felt like that was exactly what was wrong with this project. It needed to be more tightly wound. It needed to decide who exactly this character was, and stick to it relentlessly. It needed to decide if it was telling a story about small town folks running debt collecting rings out of their mother’s basements or if it was about one woman’s brilliant hustle. At baseline, it was not even clear which decade in which it was set. The clothing and hairstyles, technology, and architecture was inexplicably reminiscent of the 1980’s despite placing the film in 2018. Ultimately, it felt sloppy and exhausting.

Perhaps, my expectations were too high. I know that it is one of the firsts for Tanya Wexler and Brian Sacca (screenwriter), and I do think that we will continue to see them creating projects that exceed this one. I just always hate to see something that has all the right pieces not come together triumphantly in the end.

 

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