‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ review: Gyllenhaal, Russo among wasted star-studded cast

Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal star in "Velvet Buzzsaw."
Rene Russo and Jake Gyllenhaal star in "Velvet Buzzsaw." Photo Credit: Urban Asanas

‘Velvet Buzzsaw’

Directed by Dan Gilroy | Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette | Rated R

Playing at The Landmark at 57 West and streaming on Netflix

Only smart and talented people could make a movie like "Velvet Buzzsaw," an art world satire meshed with a horror movie that trades in big ideas but finds precious little that’s new to say about them.

The film, written and directed by Dan Gilroy and starring his "Nightcrawler" lead Jake Gyllenhaal, is certainly ambitious but it never amounts to anything close to the sum of its parts.

There is so much going on in its attempt to conflate the cutthroat commoditization of artwork with an actually murderous force, that the movie largely abandons the most basic principle of genre filmmaking by failing to be entertaining.

Gyllenhaal plays a snobbish Los Angeles critic named Morf Vandewalt, who is prone to bombastic declarations about the sanctity of his profession.

After his love interest of sorts Josephina (Zawe Ashton) wanders into the apartment of a deceased neighbor and discovers a trove of impressive never-before-seen paintings, Morf helps to whip the entire L.A. art community into what ends up being a deadly frenzy.

That’s because the paintings themselves are demonic, you see, possessed by a sinister being that threatens anyone who comes into contact with them. This includes not just Gyllenhaal and Ashton but a host of terrific actors, including Rene Russo as the tough and demanding gallery owner Rhodora Haze and characters played by Tom Sturridge, Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich and more.

Gilroy crafts the picture with an eye for arch, cerebral comedy, and with a painstaking commitment to exposing the absurdity and moral bankruptcy inherent in an environment that treats art as nothing more than a financial asset. 

It’s not like there’s anything particularly fresh about this take, though, which essentially amounts to a work of self-criticism that could just as easily be the umpteenth indictment of the emptiness in Hollywood or any other industry that makes a business out of art. The high concept grows thin: These people don’t respect the work and they pay for it with their lives.

The actors are certainly game for this, practically relishing their pretentious dialogue and mannerisms. Russo and Collette are particularly memorable in that regard. 

Yet the characters are utterly repugnant, one more unlikable than the next, and the attempt to shoehorn them into a horror movie set against this antiseptic modern art backdrop falls apart because it never seems like a serious endeavor. There’s nothing scary or especially provocative about a movie that spends its entire running time winking at you.

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