I saw Netflix’s Velvet Buzzsaw with six or seven different film critics I know at its Sundance premiere this past Sunday, and to a person, we all began the movie with “Velvet Buzzsaw” written at the top of our notebook pages and left with the rest of the page still blank. What do you even say about this strange movie? I didn’t understand what I was watching while I was watching it and I still don’t. I’ve never seen a headscratcher quite like this one.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays an art critic named “Morf,” and if you’re like me and believe Gyllenhaal not getting an Oscar nomination for Nightcrawler is one of the greatest injustices of the century, you’d be thrilled to see him reunited here with his Nightcrawler director, Dan Gilroy. Morf has hunched shoulders, fluid sexuality, a ripped bod (“I do a lot of pilates and Pelaton”) and the uncanny ability to decide whether he loves or hates a piece of art within 10 seconds of seeing it. The opening scene takes place at Art Basel in Miami, which Morf struts into, smirking bitchily as he runs into “Hobobot,” a talking robotic homeless man with a single crutch and eerie glowing blue eyes who asks for change and says things like “I built the railroads,” in his robot hobo voice.
Hobobot is probably Velvet Buzzsaw‘s high point but it’s also representative — whatever else it is, the movie has plenty of delicious comedy nuggets embedded in it (along with craisins, Brazil nuts, thumbtacks, discarded syringes, and pencil shavings). I can’t say I entirely enjoyed Velvet Buzzsaw, but I love the idea of random Netflix users watching it and trying to figure out what the hell is going on.
Morf has friends and frenemies at the art show, with whom he shares European air kisses of varying sincerity, including Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo), a 70s punk turned gallery owner who used to be in a band called Velvet Buzzsaw but now seems to have an uncanny ability to score the rights to every piece Morf loves (and his reviews can make or break a work, so the movie tells us). There’s also Josephina (Zawe Ashton), Rhodora’s assistant; a now-sober artist who can’t seem to find his voice anymore, played by John Malkovich; and two competing gallery owners played by Toni Collette in a platinum blonde Anna Wintour wig, and Tom Sturridge, in various kerchiefs and ascots that accentuate his preposterously large Adam’s Apple. Sturridge is doing some kind of European accent the whole movie and between the accent and Velvet Buzzsaw‘s muffled sound mix I only understood about a third of his dialogue. If I had waited for the Netflix release I definitely would’ve watched with the subtitles turned on.
The film begins as a kind of semi-satirical comedy, skewering the art world as it depicts the various schemes and power plays between Morf, Rhodora, Josephine, and the others. It’s great at that, and Morf is another wonderfully entertaining role for Gyllenhaal, though one does wonder how many people are versed enough in the world of high-end modern art for some of these jokes to land.
And then about 25 minutes in, Velvet Buzzsaw becomes some kind of R-rated Scooby Doo episode.
An old man in Josephine’s building dies, leaving behind a treasure trove of undiscovered art. It could be a ticket to fame, fortune, and fabulous riches for all of them, only… the art may contain an evil secret? What even is this movie? Think Art School Confidential meets Scooby Doo and you’re not far off.