PARK CITY – Every filmmaker has a movie that gets away from them. After the phenomenal creative success of “Nightcrawler” and the slightly underrated “Roman J. Israel,” it looks like Dan Gilroy has hit that epic speedbump with “Velvet Buzzsaw” which debuted at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival on Sunday. Luckily, all the actors pretty much keep their dignity intact because they at least think they know what Gilroy is going for (maybe).
The first five minutes of “Buzzsaw, admittedly, are sort of fun. We’re introduced to Gilroy’s cast of art world characters including critics, dealers and, on yeah, the artists themselves at Art Basel, the annual commercial art show in Miami. Of course, this is the worst LA for Miami since 2017’s “Rough Night,” but at least they are starting things off in the right place. There’s Morf (Jake Gyllenhaal), an independent art critic whose a flaming queen with a holier than thou attitude that makes him the no. 1 influencer on the scene (Gyllenhaal is one of the few actors to get a pass for this borderline stereotype because of, obviously, “Brokeback Mountain,” his supports the gay community and, frankly, I think I know what publicist he based his character on).
Morf is fake friends with Rhodora (Rene Russo, nicely not too campy), the top dealer in Los Angeles who makes millions off artists such as icons including Piers (John Malovich, no clue why he’s here) and the street-art friendly Damrish (Daveed Diggs, wasted). Her competition is Jon (Tom Sturridge, fine in more ways than one), a former employee who is going after all her current clients. Then there’s Josephina (Zawe Ashton, star potential), the receptionist she’s grooming to eventually join her on the sales side. Oh, and she’s having an affair with Morf who is sort of gay with a boyfriend (literally in one scene), but maybe he’s more fluid because he’s really into Josephina? Well, at least he thinks he is. Oh, and his name is Morf, get it? Like morph for fluid. Get it?
Yeah, this sort of sounds good until that Morf thing doesn’t it. Again, it is for a bit but, just you wait.
Back in Los Angeles Morf visits Gretchen (Toni Collette, hasn’t had this much fun on screen since “Connie and Carla”), a too cool for her low paying curator job at whatever is standing in for LACMA. Gretchen is a bit of gossip fiend and about to become an advisor to the rich and famous. And then there’s Bryson (Billy Magnussen), a hunky pseudo bro handyman for Rhodora who is really a serious artist if anyone would pay attention to his work (seriously Hollywood, why do you keep wasting Magnussen’s prime years in these tiny ass roles?). And last, but not least, is the demure Cocco (Natalia Dyer, gets to scream a lot), who is an innocent 22-year-old just trying to gain a footing in this crazy art biz.
After a good 20 min of introducing everyone, Gilroy gets to the actual plot which is much less of a satirical take on the art world than, um, a horror comedy? Or maybe a horror comedy thriller? Or maybe it was supposed to be a horror thriller, but he leaned into the comedic aspects? In any event, Josephina’s fortunes take a turn when her upstairs neighbor mysteriously dies. It turns out the elderly man, known as Van Dease, was an undiscovered master with a thousand unseen works. The landlord is going to throw them all out, but Josephina recognizes an artistic genius when she sees one and saves them before they hit the dumpster. Her intent is to strike out on her own and sell them until Rhodora reminds her of that pesky non-compete clause in her work agreement. They partner and, thanks to a glowing review from Morf, the dark and disturbing artwork becomes the next big thing. Ah, but can it all be too good to be true? Of course, it is!
Without spoiling anything else that the trailer doesn’t already, we’ll simply say that the artwork might move a little, could even contain some evil spirits and probably isn’t a good investment. The next thing you know, anyone who bought or profited from the artwork starts to have their own “Final Destination” moment, which takes the movie in another direction completely.
Granted, there is one very funny moment after one of the deaths, but for the most part, the comedic moments (if they were intended) mostly fall flat. It’s all very low common denominator humor centered on art world cliches. It’s worth noting that comedy hasn’t been Gilroy’s strong suit (he doesn’t have one legitimate comedy credit as a screenwriter) and in this context, he often seems in over his head. What’s even more frustrating is that the film also feels like it’s been edited down so much that key transition scenes have been removed. Characters will argue with one another in one scene and then the picture will jarringly cut to them somewhere else without explaining what happened in between.
What makes matters even worse (yes, that’s possible) is that not only is there really no one to root for, but even if you are hoping a character dies the death scenes themselves are pretty much uninspired. You know where the film is going the second the freaky paintings tease their true nature and there aren’t really any surprises in the end (even the inspiration for the film’s title is anticlimactic). And did we mention how the film lacks any of the cinematic sophistication of Gilroy’s last two films? And it’s about the art world?
There are a few positives. As noted, Gyllenhaal and Collette are having a ball, and the former actually attempts to give his character an arc. Costume designers Trish Summerville and Isis Mussenden provide some inspired ensembles even if the jury is still out on Collette’s shake and go wig. Apologies in advance, but for lack of a better descriptor the whole thing is a mess. It’s not even good enough to be a cult movie which is backhanded compliment anyway. But, hey, at least the actors tried. [C]
“Velvet Buzzsaw” debuts on Netflix on Friday.