The title “Velvet Buzzsaw” proves oddly descriptive, capturing the dual nature of a movie that’s a lacerating satire of the L.A. art world and a “The Twilight Zone”-like horror tale all at once. That latter point of reference proves key, as the movie labors to pay off its premise, delivering not much more than an amusing stroll through its gallery of over-the-top characters.
For some, the appeal of the latter will likely be enough, with Jake Gyllenhaal leading a top-notch cast, sinking his teeth into a juicy role as an acerbic art critic with the power to make or break talent.
Then again, there’s a lot of teeth-sinking, bordering on scenery-chewing, in this latest film from writer-director Dan Gilroy, which reunites him with Gyllenhaal and real-life spouse Rene Russo after their collaboration on “Nightcrawler.”
The movie opens with a lengthy introduction of this glamorous world’s mostly odious, vaguely amoral denizens – with names as pretentious as their personalities – topped by gallery owner Rhodora Haze (Russo), and her set-upon protégé Josephina (Zawe Ashton, currently featured in Netflix’s “Wanderlust”).
Rhodora’s professional circle include characters played by John Malkovich and Toni Collette, while Gyllenhaal’s Morf Vanderwalt is a constant presence, dashing off quotable lines like “A bad review is better than sinking into the great glut of anonymity.”
The story doesn’t really kick in, however, until Josephina stumbles upon the works of an unknown artist who has died in her building, leaving behind a treasure trove of mesmerizing work. The first impulse, obviously, is to cash in on those unclaimed paintings, before strange things begin to happen, for reasons that Gilroy doesn’t appear compelled to invest much time in explaining.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” thus becomes more about atmosphere than anything else, as well as the dichotomy between its macabre elements and its lavish white-wall trappings. It’s a modest twist on an old horror formula, where – like snotty teenagers – the viewer isn’t supposed to feel especially guilty about watching the characters potentially become victims.
That said, this is a rather ostentatious collection of actors for what turns out to be a slim conceit, one that will receive a few obligatory theatrical showings to stroke their egos while premiering on Netflix, which is where most people will see it.
In that regard, the running commentary about art and criticism – including Morf’s pronouncement about being a critic, “It’s my job. I’m selective” – becomes its own form of meta-analysis about a movie that likely would have struggled to generate much foot traffic without a wealthy patron like Netflix in its corner.
Then again, for Netflix a project like this is really all about the marquee – a savvy branding exercise, in the same way that HBO movies have long reflected favorably on the pay service by casting Oscar-caliber actors in prestige fare.
“What’s the point of art if nobody sees it?” Josephina asks.
What, indeed. For “Velvet Buzzsaw,” the answer lies in the kind of promotable vehicle that, seen or unseen, can help slice through the marketing clutter.
“Velvet Buzzsaw” premieres Feb. 1 on Netflix and in select theaters.