Hollywood’s vanity projects may get to bask in awards season glow, but it’s really the poison pen letters to Los Angeles that have the most fun. Nobody is more committed to examining the city’s sticky sides than writer-director Dan Gilroy. After making a career as a studio screenwriter, Gilroy ventured into filmmaking with 2014’s “Nightcrawler,” followed by 2017’s “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”
Both works study the moral depravity of closed-door industries by sticking them within the structures of genre. “Nightcrawler” lampoons media sensationalism through the grit of a nocturnal thriller, while “Roman” examines the compromises of lifelong activism through a clumsy but rewarding transformation into an old Hollywood morality play. Gilroy’s latest project, “Velvet Buzzsaw,” marks his most outrageous concoction yet: A satire of the uppity, incestuous world of modern art trading that collapses into an out-and-out horror movie.
Sadly drifting toward becoming his generation’s Johnny Depp, Jake Gyllenhaal gives an exhausting performance as another bug-eyed oddball. Morf Vandewalt (that’s his name!) is an entitled, elitist critic beset with professional and sexual dissatisfaction. The film opens as Morf attends a buzzy exhibition with his sometimes-lover Josephina (Zawe Ashton), who works for the cutthroat gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Rene Russo). After the trip, Josephina returns to her apartment building and discovers the corpse of a neighbor she never knew. Curious, she trespasses into his apartment and discovers the man was a painter of unimpeachable talent. Haze’s gallery puts together an exhibition that leaves wealthy buyers bowled over, ready to empty their wallets. But the grave robbery can’t go unpunished, and, soon enough, the bodies start to drop.
Handing a bunch of gaudily cultured twits a collection of paintings that will kill them sounds like a lot of fun, but both sides of this collision course are too thinly imagined to make an impact. Both of Gilroy’s previous efforts featured eclectic weirdos at their center; their own professional navigation helped sharpen the movie’s overall perspective. “Velvet Buzzsaw” is comparatively diffuse, electing to build out an ensemble of icy social climbers as to have enough flesh to fuel the eventual shift into horror. With no person developed into something noteworthy, there’s little being peddled but useless bourgeois nihilism.
The cast of Starbucks-chugging belles and beaus each possess their own flavor of kooky snobbishness, but their relationships are so poorly characterized that their petty squabbles lack the acidity the dialogue clearly aims for. Characters come into every conversation with a thesaurus-enhanced lexicon, engaging in games of one-upmanship that begin with phony cordiality and end with scoffs of disgust. There are a few patches of delightfully ludicrous wordiness, but the style doesn’t exactly constitute wit as much as it clarifies a loathing for every person on-screen.
As a satire, the film’s essential points are fair but obvious. The fact that commerce has fostered narcissistic brand-making and trend-chasing veracity in art trading isn’t exactly news. Such boilerplate hand-wringing isn’t enough to defeat the movie though, as the real fun should kick in watching this culture get its just desserts.
The film whiffs the horror though and becomes completely inert in its second hour when its characters become solely defined by their paranoia. Failing to deliver on either surreal flourishes or blunt force, none of the many supernatural encounters manage to produce a single memorable image. It certainly doesn’t help to have each kill be prematurely cut off before any gore can appear, defeating the film’s “Final Destination”-aping premise.
The best moments come when the bodies are discovered by the starry-eyed intern Coco (Natalia Dyer), a rather minor character, who finds herself out of work again and again as her employers continue to be slaughtered. Her financial despair and waning optimism serve as a humorous respite from the unimaginative butchery. That outsider perspective could provide a dubious attitude to sharpen the movie’s criticisms of this ridiculous culture. As is, this satire of a strawman is spread too thin.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” is now streaming on Netflix.
Jackson Kim Murphy covers film. Contact him at [email protected].