One look at the poster or trailer for Paint could reasonably lead you to believe it’s a biopic about Bob Ross. Owen Wilson has the big curly hair. He talks in a soothing voice. He paints pretty little trees in front of mountains. And that wardrobe! Paint is not about Bob Ross, even though it kind of is. Everything about Wilson’s character, Carl Nargle, is designed to make you think specifically of Ross, then to imagine what his life would have been like as a profoundly dysfunctional person. That’s a potentially funny Saturday Night Live sketch. As a full-length film, it wears thin long before the end credits begin to roll.
Carl hosts a popular painting show on Vermont’s #1 public broadcasting channel. His calm demeanor soothes viewers, who tune in to bask in his mellow vibe as they watch him paint nature scenes. Offscreen, Carl has weird short-term liaisons with many of his female coworkers, gifting them with supposed one-of-a-kind artworks as a show of his affection. For all his fame and success, he laments never having had any of his paintings hung in the local museum, a fact that bugs him way more than he lets on.
Public television turns surprisingly competitive when the channel hires a second artist, Ambrosia (Ciara Renee). She’s a prodigiously talented non-conformist who paints things like a UFO spewing blood. As her popularity grows, Carl finds himself gradually being edged out the door by the station’s manager, Tony (Stephen Root). The only person who can potentially save his job is Katherine (Michaela Watkins), his producer and bitter ex-lover. Carl has trouble keeping his brush in its holder, so to speak. His self-defeating behavior threatens to bring his career crashing to the ground.
Paint has a few elements working in its favor. Owen Wilson is the perfect choice for Carl, approaching the character with a riff on his own laid-back persona. He conveys this man’s inner turmoil without ever losing the chill voice or the Keanu Reeves-on-Quaaludes demeanor. That allows for several funny scenes, like Carl responding to a negative article by driving all around town, stealing people’s newspapers. The movie also mines humor from the exaggerated way everyone responds to the character. Most of the women swoon in his presence, and receiving one of his paintings is played as being akin to sexual gratification.
While humorous initially, that joke is repeated far too often, causing it to lose effectiveness about halfway through. Paint additionally has so much quirkiness, so much forced weirdness, that it’s impossible to take Carl’s dilemma seriously. That turns into a problem in the third act, when the plot tries to become substantive about his imposter syndrome. Writer/director Brit McAdams clearly wanted to make Lust for Life in the style of Napoleon Dynamite, yet never quite hits the correct balance needed to make the idea work.
Paint is one of those films that always feels on the cusp of taking off. Enough about it works to make the stuff that doesn’t work stand out like a sore thumb. Perhaps the key would be not making Carl Nargle incessantly reminiscent of Bob Ross. Doing that guarantees we’re constantly noticing the gag, and therefore kept at arm’s length emotionally. Parts of the movie are entertaining, but the flawed structure prevents it from hitting the comedic bullseye.
out of four
Paint is rated PG-13 for sexual/suggestive material, drug use, and smoking. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.