2019 Tribeca Film Festival movie review: ‘Buffaloed’

May 1, 2019

by Carla Hay

Zoey Deutch in "Buffaloed"
Zoey Deutch in “Buffaloed” (Photo by Guy Godfree)

“Buffaloed”

Directed by Tanya Wexler

World premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York City on April 27, 2019.

What’s an ambitious girl to do when she needs money to go to an Ivy League university but she can’t afford it? Turn to a life of crime, of course. That’s pretty much the story of Peg Dahl (manically played by Zoey Deutch) in the over-the-top comedy “Buffaloed.” The movie gets its name from Peg’s hometown of Buffalo, New York, where she was raised by a working-class, single mother named Kathy (played by Judy Greer), who doesn’t think Peg needs an Ivy League education to be a success. From an early age, Peg has had an obsession about escaping from Buffalo by attending an Ivy League school and becoming a rich and successful businessperson.

Peg’s dream starts to come true when she’s accepted into an Ivy League school, but she panics after her mother is turned down for financial aid. (Her mother supposedly makes too much money to qualify.) Peg presumably doesn’t have outstanding-enough grades to qualify for an academic scholarship either. And, of course, there would be no “Buffaloed” movie if Peg did what most people do when they can’t afford college tuition—take out a loan. So with no way to afford the tuition and with the deadline approaching to pay the tuition, Peg uses desperate measures and begins selling counterfeit tickets at Buffalo Bills games. Most movies at this point would have had Peg get away with the crime, head off to school, and continue to cook up schemes to pay for her tuition. But this is not that film.

Instead, Peg gets busted early on in the film, and she gets sentenced to 40 months in prison. Goodbye, Ivy League. One of the scenes that shows that “Buffaloed” is taking the campy, not-to-be-taken-seriously route is the chaotic environment of Peg’s trial, where the judge is eating sauce-covered Buffalo wings on the bench. When Peg gets out of prison, she is bitter, disillusioned and in debt. Her legal bills total $50,000, and being a criminal convicted of fraud has greatly reduced her chances of getting a decent job.

So let’s get this straight: Before she went to prison, Peg supposedly wasn’t able to afford an expensive Ivy League education, but she didn’t want to take out a student loan. Now she’s got $50,000 in legal bills because apparently she didn’t want to use a public defender, which is what you’re supposed to do if you can’t afford an expensive attorney. Right. Let’s move on.

Enter a character who opens a window of opportunity for Peg: Sal Scarpetta (played by “Buffaloed” screenwriter Brian Sacca, one of the film’s producers), who works for the town’s top debt-collection agency, which is hounding Peg to pay her debts. Peg and Sal first communicate over the phone when he calls her about her debt. Since the collection agency already knows about her ex-con background, and Peg finds out how much money she could be making if she worked there, it’s not long before she shows up at the agency and asks for a job.

Sal’s boss is Josh “Wizz” Wisnewski (played by Jai Courtney, hamming it up in the villain role), who runs the sleazy agency. Wizz is a sexist bully who’s reluctant to hire Peg in his aggressive, male-dominated environment. But through persistence, Peg convinces Wizz to hire her, and she makes a deal with him to erase all of her debt if she can become the company’s top debt-collector in one month.

Peg soon finds out that Wizz’s operation engages in many illegal practices, including “double-dipping,” a term used to keep billing someone for debt that has already been paid. Peg is so determined to become the top employee that she drives to Ohio to visit an elderly woman with a 20-year-debt (and Peg even brings cupcakes as part of her manipulation), because she figures that the old lady is a prime target for Peg to pull a double-dipping scam on her.

The rest of the movie veers off into a number of twists and turns, including Peg going to war with Wizz for reasons that won’t be spoiled in this review. It’s enough to say that Wizz’s “mob boss” mentality and use of extreme intimidation tactics are examples of the caricature-like silliness in this movie. Somehow, Peg’s mother Kathy, Peg’s brother JJ (played by Noah Reid) and Wizz’s brother Mitch (played by Nicholas Carella) get pulled into these shenanigans. There’s also a subplot where Peg gets romantically involved with the assistant district attorney who prosecuted her: Graham Feany (played by Jermaine Fowler), who knows she’s involved in illegal money-making schemes, but he looks the other way as long as she doesn’t tell him all the details.

“Buffaloed” director Tanya Wexler keeps a madcap pace throughout the movie that works in some areas and doesn’t work in others. Deutch (who is one of the film’s producers) takes on the role of Peg with admirable gusto. However, since Peg can’t seem to get out of Buffalo (something that’s she’s been wanting to do her whole life), and she gets caught early on for a felony crime, Peg is not as smart as the movie wants you to think she is. Unfortunately, the third act is such a mess that only a major rewrite could save the film.

The tone of “Buffaloed” is very uneven: It starts off as a dark comedy, and then turns giddy and almost sentimental in the end. “Buffaloed” could have had much better social commentary on the stresses of paying for college tuition and the extreme lengths people might go to get money for it. Instead, it devolves into an inconsistent whirling mix of under-developed characters and ill-conceived plotlines, just like an electric blender that turns a hodgepodge of ingredients into mush.

 UPDATE: Magnolia Pictures will release “Buffaloed” in select U.S. theaters and VOD on February 14, 2020.