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A Pretentious Parody of Pretension: “Velvet Buzzsaw” Review

“Velvet Buzzsaw” seeks to criticize the art community, leveling an unflattering gaze at its shiny (but artificial) facade. It’s a great idea, but what happens when your movie attacking pretension is pretentious as hell?

To quote a much better movie, “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

“Velvet Buzzsaw” premiered at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival and released on Netflix on February 1. The film is helmed by writer and director Dan Gilroy and boasts an impressive cast, starring Jake Gyllenhaal , Rene Russo, Toni Collette, Daveed Diggs, John Malkovich, Zawe Ashton and Natalia Dyer.

In the high-stakes art world of Los Angeles, a series of paintings from a tortured, unknown artist are discovered and become an instant smash. However, a vengeful supernatural force begins off those that allowed their greed to get in the way of art.

There was a lot of hype surrounding this one and I was just as eager. The juxtaposition of high brow subject to low brow tropes and genre was super interesting.

Velvet Buzzsaw
Photo credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix

Imagine my disappointment when “Velvet Buzzsaw” ended up falling into its own patterns of pretension while trying desperately to seem above it all…

I’ll hand it to “Velvet Buzzsaw,” they can cast the hell out of a film. Every single character is absolutely insufferable and incredibly grating. Of course, it’s intentional and, of course, I’m eating it up with a spoon.

Gyllenhaal absolutely steals the show in his performance as a soft-spoken, quirky art critic, Morf Vandewalt. He’s so interesting to watch and it’s a performance built in that rare combination of subtleties and being extremely extra.

My favorite, Toni Collette, is fun to watch and brings her slightly sharp delivery to a perfect execution as Gretchen. It’s a role that fits her like a tailored suit and she is wearing it well. She’s got this great presence and a unique look that really works in this setting.

Velvet Buzzsaw
Toni Collette in “Velvet Buzzsaw” | Photo credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix

Zawe Ashton as Josephina was a weak point among the starring cast. She seemed so one-dimensional in her performance. One might argue that the character she’s playing is written that way and, therefore, she’s nailing it.

But watching Zawe Ashton’s performance is like watching a smile that doesn’t quite reach the eyes. It’s not technically wrong, I just feel nothing and am left disappointed. Her flatness went beyond the character and into the realm of her literally being boring to watch.

Diggs as Damrish and Malkovich as Piers make a perfect illustration of traditional art versus the new movement and are, honestly, highlights of the film. I’d be 100% in favor of a Diggs/Malkovich buddy-cop movie.

Ultimately, “Velvet Buzzsaw” is a caricature of the art world that gets a lot right, but it often suffers from such bad pacing and overwrought delivery that it becomes just as hollow and pretentious as the culture it seeks to criticize.

They’re spending so much time making sure they get all that crispy art stuff in there that no one stops to think about the fact that the story has ground to a screeching halt.

Velvet Buzzsaw
Photo credit: Claudette Barius/Netflix

Though it does bring in an interesting discussion on authentic artistic expression versus selling out. Summarized beautifully in this quote from Ashton’s character, “What’s the point of art if no one sees it?”

To which I’d reply, what’s the point of marketing this as horror if the film is so sloppy on the scares and the kills?

The visual effects in “Velvet Buzzsaw” are hit or miss. Sometimes they’re dreamy and cool and sometimes they’re very out of place and silly. Same goes for scares.

Sometimes something is put together in just the right combination of scary and meaningful, and sometimes the visual feels totally random and off.

All of that being said, it’s a beautiful movie. It has some insanely cool shots and is doing the absolute MOST when it comes to costumes. The costuming in this movie is incredible. Holy crap.

My verdict? “Velvet Buzzsaw” is style over substance and that’s after you get past the fact that it’s not exactly sure what kind of film it wants to be.

None of that changes the fact that it has some stellar performances, an interesting premise, and is an all-around good-looking piece. Given that it’s a Netflix release, I’d give it a watch.

“Velvet Buzzsaw” is streaming on Netflix now!

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