Less than a decade into her professional acting career, Zoey Deutch long ago reached the “can do anything” stage of her trajectory. A skilled comedian who infuses her characters with pathos and likability, Deutch’s roles have spanned genres, tones, and reach. She’s done the sad-eyed YA thing (“Before I Fall”) and the cute rom-com thing (“Set It Up”), the studio sequel thing (“Zombieland: Double Tap”) and the Richard Linklater hangout movie thing (“Everybody Wants Some!!”), even making time for the Netflix series thing (“The Politician”). The actress’ fizzy, frenetic charm is strong enough to bolster the thinnest of concepts, and every role she takes on is better for her contributions. But she can’t save everything.
That’s not to say that Tanya Weller’s modest debt-collecting comedy “Buffaloed” isn’t without other strengths — like a stellar supporting cast that includes Jai Courtney as a real sleazeball, Judy Greer as Deutch’s brassy mom, and “Schitt’s Creek” standout Noah Reid as her sweet brother — but its undercooked and often cowardly plot doesn’t do it any favors. Written by first-time screenwriter Brian Sacca (an actor who has contributed to the scripts of a number of awards shows), “Buffaloed” wants to package searing insights into the crooked world of debt collecting into a cutesy comedy, leaning hard on Deutch’s skills and far less on a script that’s unwilling to get nasty with its subject matter.
Opening with a chintzy variation on the overused “record scratch, freeze frame, I bet you’re wondering how I got here” meme, “Buffaloed” kicks off with Deutch’s Peg Dahl going buckwild on her biggest nemesis, though the film will have to cycle back whole years before the sequence makes much sense. At least Peg is compelling, described as a born hustler with a “gift for gab” who has always hated her hometown of Buffalo, New York (especially its signature spicy chicken wings, which are mentioned often enough to qualify for supporting status). Since childhood, Peg has dreamed of getting the hell out of Buffalo, a desire that put her on an early path to financial freedom infused with a generous dose of informercial knowledge and a healthy respect for Warren Buffett.
Most of the information doled out about Peg — and there’s quite a bit of it — is delivered via peppy voiceover from Deutch, who zips through whole chunks of narrative at lightning-fast speed. Aiming to shore up funds for college, a fake ticket-selling scheme lands Peg in prison (and increases her family’s already-deep debt), spitting her back into the world after 40 months behind bars. That’s when the debt collectors start calling, but a Peg schools one of them on how to really get people to pay up and, suddenly, she’s got a new outlet for her dreams of financial freedom.
The irony is, quite obviously, that by doing so, she’s trapping others in their own cycle of paying bills they can’t afford (and that’s about as deep as things get in “Buffaloed”). Deutch is so likable that it’s almost too easy to forget that Peg isn’t a good person, and her eventual realization about her willing participation in such soul-crushing work is only sold because it’s far easier to like Deutch than to pry deeper into her character’s many flaws.
Wexler and Sacca know how to keep the action moving, running the 95-minute comedy through a series of subplots, twists, and turns that offer little narrative slack. Some are more successful than others, including an informational section in which Deutch explains “Debt Collecting 101” and the formation of her own all-star group of debt-collecting weirdos. Other additions fall flat, like Peg’s odd romancing by her former prosector (an otherwise sweet Jermaine Fowler) and a series of jokes only made for other upstaters (don’t know what “pop” is? you’re in big trouble). It all leads up to a convoluted scheme crafted to free Peg from her misdeeds and deliver a hammer-heavy lesson about the evils of debt collecting.
Despite repeated narrative notations about the crooked and unregulated system that drives debt collecting, it takes plenty of personal problems for Peg to learn her lessons. It’s a given that Courtney’s corny character Wizz’s mantra (“debt never dies”) will leave some kind of lasting impact on the film’s audience, but the many instances in which Peg herself needs to absorb it are wearing and worrying in equal measure. By the time Wexler’s feature ratchets up to criminal double-crossings, a shocking arrest, and Deutch gamely going up against her primary nemesis, even she can’t salvage a cheap story that keeps coming up short.
Magnolia Pictures will release “Buffaloed” in theaters on Friday, February 14.