“‘Fine’ is like mediocrity’s dumb cousin,” Peg (Zoey Deutch) proclaims in “Buffaloed,” telling her older brother JJ (Noah Reed) of her distaste of the descriptor, surely not only speaking for herself, but for director Tanya Wexler, who makes clear there will be no settling for average from an opening scene in which her heroine runs through the barren streets of upstate New York with a gun that when fired is somehow quieter than the primal scream she lets out into the air. She needs to be loud since what Wexler and writer Brian Sacca are after is something often hidden in fine print, taking on the arcane practices of debt collection in the once-thriving industry town of Buffalo where opportunity has dwindled for employment in the service of making things, but business is booming for those eager to take them away.
This isn’t where Peg saw herself ending up after college, during which time she racked up $29,000 in student loans to eventually atone for, but this wildly entertaining and trenchant critique of ruthless capitalism finds its industrious heroine ready to adapt, taking the lessons learned from evaluating the profit margin she’d receive for scalping Bills games in her teens to strike a deal with Josh Wisnieski (a wonderfully greasy Jai Courtney), the local heavy holding the paper for all the town, to erase her debt while getting others who are thought to be unreachable to pay down theirs. As it turns out, she’s so good at it she goes into business for herself, creating an adversary in the Wizz when the two become rivals, but faces a far more daunting foe in gradually transforming into what she once feared with Sacca’s clever script akin to the heroes of John Carpenter’s “They Live” lifting up their sunglasses, suggesting Peg’s arc from shrewd and savvy saleswoman to heartless vulture concerned only with the bottom line can go a long way towards explaining how the middle class has been hollowed out over the past century in America, leaving desperation on all sides — for those looking to get out of debt or to cash in on other’s misfortune.
It’s a heavy subject, but one that is unpacked with great verve by Wexler, who last found tremendous fun in the suppression of female sexuality during the Victorian era in “Hysteria” and can rely upon the ever-effervescent Deutch for a weapons-grade charm offensive. Picking up a few stylistic tricks from Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” to drop in its advanced econ cred without losing the plot, “Buffaloed” makes space for those who aren’t ever seen onscreen with its plucky protagonist of some privilege there to remind if she struggles with the hustle, then what hope is there for the millions more dealing with debt? Although the crude vernacular Peg deploys can be chalked up to her Buffalo roots, all the “jagoffs” become the appropriate language to convey the ugly perversion of free-market system and for all its zippiness, it’s a sharp comedy that gives great pause.