In writer-director Dan Gilroy’s new satire on the money-motivated world of fine art, Jake Gyllenhaal plays Morf Vandewalt, a powerful but occasionally cruel critic who shows no remorse after the latest victim of his pitiless pen takes Morf’s review particularly hard.
“Ricky got drunk and crashed his car last night. He's in a coma,” Morf is told. “I heard he was crushed.”
“By the car?” Morf deadpans.
Unlike Morf, this critic takes little pleasure in vitriol. So I’m glad Gilroy and his accomplished actors won’t be wrecked by my writing, as Velvet Buzzsaw is a refreshingly offbeat and irresistibly quirky comedy, with a dash of drama and a heap of horror.
A straight-to-Netflix release, by way of the Sundance Film Festival, Buzzsaw is, above all else, an allegory. But unlike its pretentious characters – critics, artists, agents, gallery owners and art advisors – the film is blissfully carefree, never taking itself too seriously. And therein lies its charm, which is buoyed by another charismatically manic performance by Gyllenhaal, not dissimilar to his last collaboration with Gilroy (Nightcrawler).
The story, which plays second fiddle to the themes, focuses on Morf’s friend and part-time lover, Josephina (the infinitely watchable and sympathetic Zawe Ashton), who discovers a trove of masterpieces in the apartment of a recently deceased neighbor. Absconding with them, she teams with gallery owner Rhodora (Rene Russo, still in fine form), and together they introduce the world to the dead dude’s paintings, which are dark enough to make Hieronymous Bosch blush. But what no one sees – except the audience, as the twists aren’t meant to be subtly disguised – is the evil embedded in these canvasses, evil unleashed by the financial exploitation of aestheticism.
Some viewers might take exception to the film’s one-dimensionality and seemingly blithe disregard for the art cultures of Los Angeles and Miami. Some might also be bothered by Gilroy’s depiction of Morf’s casual bisexuality or, if you prefer, pansexuality. To those viewers, I say: Lighten up, and don’t let the film’s genre-busting format flummox you, for this is predominantly a satire, and an intelligent one at that. It’s also blisteringly funny at times, benefiting from effective, though brief, supporting performances by Toni Collette and John Malkovich, and a particularly charming turn from Natalia Dyer (Stranger Things).
What you should instead be bothered by is the movie’s slightness, unevenness, throwaway subplots and lack of a fully satisfactory finale beyond the foregone conclusion that “art is dangerous” – both intellectually and physically. Nevertheless, I can’t remember another recent time when one-dimensional characters were so much fun.