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by Kilian Melloy
Friday Feb 14, 2020

As far as educating filmgoers about the nasty realities of debt collection in America, the Zoey Deutch-executive produced and starring comedy "Buffaloed" has real social merit. And when it comes to doing some actual good for hard-pressed people, the film has put its money where its messaging is, in setting out to , through a partnership between Magnolia Pictures and Rip Medical Debt.

As a movie, however, "Buffaloed" won't exactly bowl you over. It's a zip-bang comedy that relies on balls-out performances and characterizations, especially by Deutch, whose central protagonist, a go-getter named Peg, is so single-mindedly focused on lifting herself out of poverty that she fails to observe the finer points of operating within the confines of the law.

As a result of a jail sentence, Peg's plans to become independently wealthy seem detailed — but only until she figures out that people tainted (and left deep in debt) by the criminal justice system do have a few options for making a decent living. Those options may border on, or even veer into, the criminal, but in the largely unregulated area of debt collection, who's to know the difference?

Peg's family, for one: Her mother, Kathy (Judy Greer), urges Peg not to stay in the debt collection business, since Kathy herself — left in desperate financial straits by her husband's bad behavior in life and then his untimely death — is all too familiar with the strong arm tactics and relentless hectoring that collectors employ.

Then there's her brother, JJ (Noah Reed), a simple but decent soul who'd be happy running his bar in peace, if only Peg's antics didn't tend to drag him into trouble right along with her.

Another interested — though highly conflicted — party is Peg's sort-of boyfriend, Graham (Jermaine Fowler), who was the prosecutor at her trial for scalping tickets to Bills games and is now worried that hooking up with her will complicate his life if he ends up prosecuting her along with a bunch of other shady debt collectors operating in Buffalo, NY, where the film is set.

And speaking of those debt collectors who are working in the city — they are also keenly interested in Peg's doings, especially onetime employer (and Grade A thug) Wizz (Jai Courtney), against whom Peg soon finds herself in a turf war.

The film has some great ideas behind it, including a "The Big Short"-style direct-to-camera explanations of technical financial details. There's also a real shower of sparks between Peg and Wizz any time the two are on screen together; he's a pig when it comes to women and a brute when it comes to men, but in certain ways she's a woman after his own black and withered heart, and the film entertains a frisson of sexual tension between the characters that makes one wonder if Peg wouldn't be better suited to Wizz than to the slightly discombobulated Graham — a character with whom, in any case, no shower of sparks erupts, despite the film's suggestion that the two are irresistibly attracted to each other. That might have been on the page, but it doesn't much register on screen.

For every great idea, though, there's a lazy shortcut: A fist-fight in a court of law (that erupts because of a disagreement over which restaurant has better wings); overstated (and too-easily resolved) family tensions; and legal problems that spin so wildly out of control that it's hard to imagine that all the main characters wouldn't, in real life and under this country's methods of prosecuting poor people, end up behind bars for life instead of bouncing back repeatedly.

The comedy is lukewarm, relying on verve and velocity, as well as that most overused of all comic fall-backs, the wide array of shallow, but supposedly amusing, supporting characters; Peg, in striking out to found her own debt collection agency, recruits every semi-shady person she crosses paths with, as long as they show an ounce of hustle. (This includes the ruler of the cell block roost from Peg's time in the joint, a hooker, and a former high school classmate and an evangelical Bible peddler.) It's like a borderline felonious A-Team, but Peg's gang mostly lack distinction or meaningful roles.

Peg herself is an inconsistent (as opposed to complex) character, tough as nails one moment and almost too girlish and breathily gamine-like the next. It's as though Deutch (or director Tanya Wexler) doesn't know whether Peg should be more Ellen Paige or Marilyn Monroe. The character falls somewhere in the middle, but is nearly swallowed by the contradictions.

In the end, we're even treated to a "What I've learned" speech — a moment that doesn't tug the heart strings so much as set the eyes rolling.

Still, this is a film that has a heart, and its heart is in the right place. Give it that — and that's a lot.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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