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REVIEW: ‘Velvet Buzzsaw’ is a flawed, dumb movie. I didn’t entirely hate it.



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"Velvet Buzzsaw" is a Netflix original movie that was released Jan. 31. The movie stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Rene Russo. Movie Stills Database Buy Photos

When I first heard about “Velvet Buzzsaw,” I couldn’t stop telling my friends about it. 

A new movie from Dan Gilroy, who wrote and directed the dark, fantastical 2014 ode to unethical journalism “Nightcrawler"? A new starring role for powerhouse actor-hiding-as-pretty boy Jake Gyllenhaal, who also starred in “Nightcrawler"? A surreal horror movie meditating on the nature of art and art criticism?

You could not stop me from watching it. When it finally started streaming Feb. 1 on Netflix, I expected it to be one of my new favorites, a low-key movie pick I would recommend to acquaintances when I wanted to sound particularly cultured.

I didn’t expect it to be terrible. 

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is a mangled mess of a movie that alternates between semi-meaningless judgments on the gallery world and so-called horror scenes so campy, they make the viewer wonder if they’re actually watching a parody.

The film follows Jake Gyllenhaal as Morf Vandewalt, an influential art critic who comes across the art of a dead man named Vetril Dease. It quickly becomes apparent something is supernaturally wrong with the paintings, and Vandewalt and his peers — played to varying levels of success by Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs and Rene Russo — are left clueless as the stakes become more dire. 

One of the major cardinal sins of this movie is the utter waste of fine actors. The only notable performances in the film are from Collette and Gyllenhaal, but the biggest shame is from a criminally underused John Malkovich playing an artist whose sobriety has made his work worse. Malkovich seems to appear more in the trailer than in the actual movie.

In its ham-fisted attempt to satirize and judge the art world, the movie makes the overly dramatic cautionary tales of “Black Mirror” look subtle. It makes a half-hearted attempt at being profound, but it all falls a little flat despite Gilroy’s best efforts.

But, the movie does make at least one valid point.

“Critique is so limiting and emotionally draining,” Gyllenhaal’s Vandewalt says in the trailer.

Critiquing a movie this disappointing is indeed emotionally draining. As I was watching the movie, my despair over what this movie could have been became boring over time. But, eventually, something else kicked in. 

The question “Wait, is this movie actually this bad?” turned from one tinged with dissatisfaction into delight instead. Eventually, I realized that yes, this is the movie they decided to use $21 million to make.

It’s hilarious. While the movie isn’t quite bad enough to join the canon of so-bad-they’re-good movies such as “The Room” or “Birdemic: Shock and Terror,” the fact it gets so close is astounding. 

The whole movie comes off as a little clueless. Visually, it’s actually quite nice. Cinematographer Robert Elswit did win the Academy Award for Best Cinematography in 2008 for “There Will Be Blood.” 

There is a good movie waiting somewhere in all the beautiful, colorful mess of “Velvet Buzzsaw.” Unfortunately, Gilroy wasn’t up to the task of actually finding it. 

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