Velvet Buzzsaw (***1/2) cuts unevenly

Velvet Buzzsaw – 2018

Written and Directed by Tony Gilroy
Starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Zawe Ashton, Tom Sturridge, Natalia Dyer, Daveed Diggs, Billy Magnussen, John Malkovich

One of my top 5 favorite films is Robert Altman’s The Player. Anyone who’s seen this film experiences firsthand the vapid existence of the San Fernando Valley has been enveloped within since the days of the first Oscar ceremony. It’s the culmination of the skills and wisdom that its director had accrued in his years being at war with the pretentious and ever less creative establishment within which he made his living.

It was so well received, he decided to try the same thing a few years later, with Ready to Wear. It’s topic, the world of fashion, wasn’t as much in his wheelhouse, and it felt a little redundant.

Tony Gilroy has The Player in mind with much of the first act of Velvet Buzzsaw. His efforts are an attempt to show the vapid existence of the art world in the same Orange County. It feels more like Ready to Wear than its predecessor. Both feel like shooting fish in a barrel. No one has ever cast a loving eye on either of these profession, so seeing them lampooned doesn’t have the same effect.

Fortunately, making art dealers look like asses is not the only goal for Gilroy. His story is really one of possession and destruction of those who seek to profit from a collection of works found in a dead man’s apartment.

The man, whose face we never get a good look at, is named Vetril Dease. His art works are varied, but completely stark in nature. The critics, gallery owners and their employees are all brought into the web of Dease’s work begin to be picked off one by one. The method of their demise varies. Some better in terms of story and logic than others.

Critic Morf Vanderwalt (Gyllenhaal) is a confused character. His desire for his romantic partners is as varied as his taste in art. He’s always evaluating, always shifting. His drive with the Dease works pushes him to figure out everything he can about the creator. Gyllenhaal plays with his character’s shifting motives to create a compelling person, nonetheless.

Ashton plays Josephina, the object of one of his obsessions. She is the agent who discovers the body and work of Dease. Her character is more finely drawn. She has an overpowering desire to rise in the ranks of the art world, but her motives are everything that is wrong, in the eyes of the director. Even in the face of such truly haunting art, she doesn’t believe the paintings have value to display unless they sell.

This is the divining rod for those who survive and those who perish in the wake of the collection. The people who seek only profit from viewing the collection are torn apart. Others who use the work as inspiration for their own art find something more.

Of the other actors, Russo and Malkovich are the most fully realized. Both portray people who’ve been hollowed out by the world that inhabits them. They each find something different.

Gilroy has made a solid film. Not a spectacular one. If he hadn’t made the complete masterpiece Nightcrawler, I would be more impressed with what he tries to achieve here and less disappointed in the fact that he’s set such a high bar I seem intent on holding him to.

Some of his story lines work, and some of them are less compelling. His vantage points can be breathtaking. Some of the things that come to get his characters are haunting as hell, and some feel a little shopworn. His work is still worth the time invested. even if it comes across as uneven.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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