Peg Dahl (Zoey Deutch) is a natural born hustler. Although smart enough to land a place at a top-tier college she screws up. After a disastrous scheme to earn tuition money lands Peg in jail she eventually emerges with no prospects and crippling debt. That is when Peg hits on the idea to start her own debt collection agency. She recruits a group of similarly outcast go-getting hustlers to form a profitable business and along the way sparks an unlikely romance with the state prosecutor (Jermaine Fowler) that first put her in jail. Unfortunately Peg also crosses paths with the state’s most ruthless debt kingpin (Jai Courtney) who proceeds to wreck her life.
Buffaloed never quite reconciles its conflicting desires to make the audience like Peg in spite of her flaws and condemn a broken system that enables someone this mercenary to profit off other's misfortune. Nevertheless thanks to a snappy script, sincere empathy for a certain kind of underdog and above all a career-best ebullient turn from lead Zoey Deutch it is a wild ride that raises some sobering points along the way. Specifically about how widespread debt has become and how frighteningly easy it is for unscrupulous leeches to profit off it. All quite legally of course. If the film sometimes feels like a more grounded, low-stakes variation on The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) only with a protagonist that is easier to like that might be because screenwriter Brian Sacca appeared as an actor in the Martin Scorsese film.
Running with a mantra ("debt never dies") guaranteed to strike terror into the hearts of students everywhere, Buffaloed, again like the Scorsese film, presents characters that embrace grifting as a way of life, arguing it is the only way to survive in the crazy dog eat dog capitalist mania of modern America. Peg, while just as willing as her adversaries to exploit those drowning in debt, is presented as a few notches above slimeballs like Jai Courtney's character Wizz. She aims to avoid the violence and intimidation routinely associated with debt collection and instead sell ‘customers’ on peace of mind with the promise of a debt-free future. While making a tidy profit. Deutch's amiability combined with Sacca's disarmingly empathetic, if inconsistent, script just about sells us on the notion that Peg is not so much evil as in denial as to the monstrous side-effects of her otherwise good intentions. Or blind to the fact her mercenary nature might soon turn her into a monster.
Leavening its cynicism with a tender heart Buffaloed's third act moves away from its initial trajectory of the rise and fall of a scam artist and instead refashions Peg into an almost Frank Capra-esque hero (or more likely, antihero) sticking it to the true jackals of the debt game. Even so the script’s inherent ambiguity resurfaces at the fadeout with yet another reference to The Wolf of Wall Street that has the viewer leaving an otherwise amiable comedy feeling rather queasy.