' ' Cinema Romantico: Buffaloed

Monday, March 09, 2020


“Buffaloed” begins with the ending, or close to it, as Peg Dahl (Zoey Deutch) races down the street in slow motion, aggressively clutching a gun, one she fires into the air upon reaching her destination, at which point director Tanya Wexler freezes the frame and flashes back to show how we got here. It’s not just that it’s a hoary device, though it most certainly is, but that the payoff, when we get back around to it, fizzles out. The fizzling is inadvertently emblematic of “Buffaloed” itself, set in the unsavory world of debt collecting and focused on a character, Peg, who is unrelenting her self-centeredness but oddly unwilling to see that character through to the sort of outrageous ending its own logic dictates. Peg suggests a small town version of Jennifer Lopez in “Hustlers”, a movie which vaguely referenced its characters pointed lack of scruples and then just sort of blew such moralizing off, ending pointedly with a song and a dance and champagne. But “Buffaloed”, despite Deutch's devil-may-care performance, takes its idea of debt following you forever rather literally, not exploring what leads to such financial debt in the first place but more consumed with the emotional debt that Peg accumulates, intent on ensuring she atone, even if that atonement feels tacked on and unconvincing.

Moving quickly through Peg’s adolescence to her young adulthood, she is introduced as someone who despises Buffalo so much all she wants, no matter what, is out. That’s all well and good, but “Buffaloed” does little to establish what makes Buffalo so unappealing in the first place, never mind Buffalo itself, save for a few shots of people in Buffalo Bills paraphernalia and a Judge oddly fixated on the city’s wings, prone to asking those on trial and those prosecuting them which Buffalo wings joint they prefer. Maybe this really happens in Buffalo, who I am to say, but it plays like broad comedy of an out-of-towner more than a distinct sense of place. (Brian Sacca, the screenwriter is from Buffalo, but it would seem some in the area quibble with his presentation.) And while the frequently wood-paneled interiors feel true to its rust belt setting, as does Peg’s mom (Judy Greer) running unlicensed salon out of her own home, the movie having been shot in Canada rather than its ostensible location might have contributed to the problem of a movie signaling a place with its title but never conveying it.

Getting into an Ivy League school but unable to pay for it, Peg falls back on nefarious moneymaking schemes, scamming unsuspecting Bills fans with phony tickets. This gets her locked up, foiling her higher education, and though Sacca’s script sets up one character in the clink (Lorrie Odom) for down the road, it mostly glosses over this experience behind bars, not just because it’s played more for comedy (a black eye!) than psychological acuity but because remorse and self-analyzing are deliberately portrayed as Peg’s weaknesses.

Wexler takes us through the debt collecting process with talking to the camera monologues reminiscent of “Wolf of Wall Street”, which is occasionally what “Buffaloed” suggests, a parable for a greedy, nasty society that doesn’t just exist in downtown Manhattan but upstate New York. The movie paints the debt collectors as evil but then tries to get out from under these queasy ethics by having Peg go it alone with the help of a motley crew that will push back, sort of transforming them into lovable losers even as fleece others. Lest you think I am Reading Too Much Into It, “Buffaloed” ending with a postscript citing a few facts about the scourge of debt collectors gives it aways it yearning for at least some sort of earnest commentary, which is undoubtedly why it forces members of Peg’s motley crew to call her out even as it simultaneously keeps trying to be humorous, a tricky feat exceeding its grasp.

You wanna be a comedy, be a comedy, go for it, gung-ho, and let your character be unlikable. Deutch, bless her, is willing to be unlikable. In her character’s relationship with a lawyer (Jermaine Fowler), who isn’t so much a Magical Negro as a kind of Saint Negro, Deutch evinces the air of someone waving off his concerns even as he expresses them right to her face, aiming her figurative car right at a wall and ignoring his repeated pleas to use an airbag. And as the movie builds to a moment when the walls close in on Peg, Deutch lets us see the walls close in on her, palpably denying it with a through-gritted-teeth frenzy, an indelible moment that gets to the truth of a character willing to sideswipe the members of her own family to flee the city where they seem content to stay. Like so many movies these days, “Buffaloed” comes across afraid to follow its own character over the edge, consumed by thoughts of having someone to Root For, failing to honor Peg’s (lack of) conviction.

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