Although “Velvet Buzzsaw” has a crackerjack premise and one heck of a cinematic pedigree (from writer / director Dan Gilroy), it fails miserably. It is an irritating satire of a film that thinks is far more clever than it actually is, and it becomes just as insufferable as the stuffy art critics, gallery owners, and the artists it depicts. This movie is a mess, and not in the positive, creatively artistic sense.
The film is set in the cutthroat world of the Los Angeles contemporary art market. Works are bought and sold at a frenzied pace, with most brokers only caring about the amount they can sell something for rather than the art itself. Critic Morf Vandewalt (Jake Gyllenhaal) knows his power when it comes to the commercialization of art, and gallery owner Gretchen (Toni Collette) plays her role too. When the walking cliche of an agent Josephina (Zawe Ashton) stumbles upon a collection of creepy paintings after her elderly neighbor dies, she takes them to her boss Rhodora (Rene Russo) and soon they are being shopped around to competing managers, curators, and collectors for the highest dollar.
The film is full of snappy dialogue that reads like a long, insufferable insider joke only for those “in the know.” It will alienate anyone outside the art world, and it goes too far. I’m an art lover and have spent time around art galleries and the unsavory types depicted here, but I often couldn’t tell if and when I should be laughing, and instead was left scratching my head. The characters are clichéd and unpleasant, making it nearly impossible to care about any of them.
Things pick up once the film takes a macabre supernatural detour, as sinister events began to happen once a person gets their hands on one of the mysterious paintings. It’s a smart idea that’s full of subtext, that of an artist punishing those who profit from his work, but the absurdist notions in the film feel more like a very limited attempt at satire that will only appeal to the type of wannabe “I’m-so-exclusive” audiences who pat themselves on the back for laughing way too loud at aristocratic humor found in Kenneth Branagh movies.
Despite a fantastic turn from Gyllenhaal, the film is an unfunny, unsuccessful, elitist spoof about what happens when art and commerce collide, and it’s one that will be lost on most.