When it comes to scenes, contemporary art is probably the most mysterious and exclusive. Anyone with a pencil, paper, and memory can be a writer or poet, while anyone with an instrument or app can be a musician. Anyone with a phone can record anything and call it a movie, but unless people go out and pay money to see it, those writers don’t care. Art, however – at least to those of us outside of it – requires a certain pedigree, ruthlessness, and catty narcissism to get by. Writer/director Dan Gilroy plays with this insular world in his entertaining Velvet Buzzsaw.
Josephina (Zawe Ashton) is heading to her art gallery job when she finds one of her neighbors dead in the hallway. She learns that he was an artist who gave specific instructions to have his works destroyed upon his death. Struggling to get back in good graces with her powerful boss Rhondora (Rene Russo), she breaks into his apartment and steals his brilliant paintings. The two bring art critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) and museum-director-turned-art-advisor Gretchen (Toni Collette) into their scheme of creating an underground superstar whilst soaking in the glory. Unfortunately, the art literally has a mind of its own and turns against those who seek to profit from it.
“Art…requires a certain pedigree, ruthlessness, and catty narcissism to get by.”
Gilroy effectively creates a close-knit world of cut-throat backstabbers thrown into a world of supernatural revenge with a few pretty shots thrown in for good measure, but that’s about it. Yes, the characters all have their particular quirks, but they’re all so conniving and backstabbing, none of them is likable. Even Natalia Dyer’s character of Rhodora’s assistant Coco, who comes across as the one redeemable innocent in all this, stoops to low levels to get where she needs to go, making her no better than the rest.
As for the photography, throwing a few exquisitely composed shots between utilitarian story progression comes off as a bit jarring. You’re watching the narrative and then suddenly get sucked out by some beautiful establishing shot that only serves as geography. That’s not to say the narrative shots are ugly; they’re just not so amazingly composed that you’re stunned when you see them. It’s really a case of doing it the whole time or don’t bother. That said, the special effects stand out as some of the best in recent memory.
“…you’re entertained, but not so invested in the characters…”
The actors all do an excellent job with what they’re given, but they’re not characters, they’re caricatures pushed to extremes, making them unrelatable and vapid. Ensemble casts are fun, but when none of them is likable, there really isn’t much of a point. John Malkovich particularly gets the short end of the stick as an artist in recovery who’s struggling to find his voice in sobriety. Unfortunately, this potentially gripping side-plot goes nowhere and becomes an empty distraction.
In the end, you’re entertained, but not so invested in the characters that you’re hooked to every word. It’s enjoyable, but not memorable, and certainly, nothing that lingers in the mind or makes you want to gush to your coworkers the next day. Velvet Buzzsaw only adds to the perception of the art world as shallow and pompous – a place that seems enticing at first, but becomes less appealing the closer you get. Sadly, that’s as deep as it gets.
Velvet Buzzsaw (2019) Directed by Dan Gilroy. Written by Dan Gilroy. Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Toni Collette, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich.
6 out of 10 stars