One of the little known hustles in America is how people are exploiting personal debt for their own gain and this debt epidemic has given way to a brand new form of organised crime. It doesn’t sound like the makings of a decent comedy but Buffaloed is a riot, a fiercely intelligent story that manages to hide the darker side of its story until the right moment, when it plays like the emotional suckerpunch you need. Blisteringly funny, it makes following a hustler not only amusing but informative, somehow making the misfortune drift off into the background and that might say more about our indifference than we want to believe.
Peg Dahl (Zoey Deutch) has played the system in so many ways, seeking a way out of her small little life in Buffalo, NY. All it found her was a ticket to prison and a record that stopped her from fulfilling her dream and mounted up a pile of unpaid debt. When she sees a way to pay off that debt and exploit the system that has her bound at the same time, she jumps at it, not caring about the faceless people behind these debts or the friends and family of misfits she might hurt along the way to making a pile of other people’s money.
While its hard to deny the enjoyment Buffaloed has in doing the wrong thing and having you enjoy it right there with Peg, director Tanya Wexler wants you to revel in Peg’s actions and Deutch makes this easy, giving her best performance to date as the fearless grifter. Watching her get by through the skin of her teeth using just her smarts and her own affinity for knowing just how stupid people can be is thrilling, corrupting and most of all, fun.
It makes for compelling comedy, one which finds Deutch bouncing off a supporting cast willing to play second fiddle to Peg’s nonsense. While her speeches, written with a subtle sense of self-loathing by Brian Sacca, are fired off, rapid fire while still making sense, when you take a minute to think just what is being said, the glimmers of darkness begin to emerge. Deutch’s masterful smokescreen of a performance hides a deeper film, one of right, wrong, power, money, greed and most of all indifference. All hidden behind a good laugh (and there are plenty), Wexler piles up Peg’s indiscretions waiting to bury you with them.
Her first film in nine years, since the middling but heart-warming Victorian feature Hysteria, Buffaloed has the same empowering and bold spirit but her Wexler flexes by having Peg’s choices hard to contrast with the person on screen, the light and bubbly person that manages to make the story around her feel that way by sheer force of will. Wexler here wants you to contemplate the difference between meaning well and doing good, never once compromising her satire to do so. It’s a comedic tightrope that only really comes apart at its end thanks to some unnecessary plotting.
While Peg’s story is a triumph in terms of audience manipulation and Wexler highlights a real issue in American society in a way that makes it easy to comprehend, often dipping into Adam McKay’s playbook from The Big Short to do so, Buffaloed is too often positioned as a romantic-comedy, something it never earns of feels like. The films central relationship between Peg and Feany (Jermaine Fowler), an assistant district attorney investigating her is a step too far in a story that relies heavily on embellishing Peg’s strange little community. To call it unreal would seem hypocritical of a film that leans heavily into the hyperbolic but it never feels anything but false, a means to humanise peg’s worse tendencies instead of relying on Deutch to do that herself.
Unlike McKay’s latest feature Vice, Buffaloed isn’t buried beneath the issue it brings to light, instead using it as not only for biting comedy but some much needed self reflection. While it might not hit the landing in the way it intends, Wexler has crafted one of 2020’s most entertaining comedies while making you wonder, if you had the chance to make the kind of money Peg does but it might affect someone you don’t know, would you do it. It’s hard not to find this anything but intuitive and inventive filmmaking.