Synopsis: Carl Nargle, Vermont’s #1 public television painter, is convinced he has it all: a signature perm, custom van, and fans hanging on his every stroke… until a younger, better artist steals everything (and everyone) Carl loves.
Stars: Owen Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ciara Renée, Lucy Freyer, Lusia Strus, Stephen Root
Director: Brit McAdams
Running Length: 96 minutes
TMMM Score: (5/10)
Review: I’m maybe one of a few hundred people globally that hasn’t been exposed to the works of Bob Ross, the television host/painter that has developed a unique cult following in the years since his early death in 1995. Known for his specialized brand of “wet-on-wet” technique, which allowed the artist to instruct his audience/students so quickly through several hundred episodes that continue to air on repeat today. Finding great acclaim posthumously left the man’s personal details behind the brush challenging to come by, hindered further by fierce privacy protection from his corporation and family members.
Perhaps that’s why Paint is about Bob Ross but only sorta, but not really, but maybe it is, but it’s not, but how could it not be a little, but it’s truly a different tale entirely. The script for Paint was on that infamous Hollywood Black List (like Air, also releasing this week), but it took about a decade for it to get out of development hell and into production. I’m guessing it needed someone that saw beyond the Bob Ross of it all and into the cozy weirdness of what writer/director Brit McAdams was attempting. I’m not sure who else might have been circling this one, but it’s hard to believe anyone but Owen Wilson could have tackled this tricky gamble of a film with such confidence and still come out on top.
Afternoon appointment television in Vermont is ‘Paint with Carl Nagle’, broadcast from a local PBS affiliate run by Tony (Stephen Root, Four Good Days). Through hundreds of episodes, Carl (Wilson, Marry Me) has taken viewers to “a special place” and returned with a finished work of art, usually a nearby mountain landscape. Viewers don’t know it, but Carl has desperately wanted to get his paintings hung in the local museum, but his lack of true self-confidence has held him back for decades.
In person, Carl comes off as a preening peacock, doted on by an array of female hangers-on that all want a “painting” from him. Anything Carl needs, Wendy (Wendi McLendon-Covey, Blended), Beverly (Luisa Strus, Stir of Echoes), or newbie Jenna (Lucy Freyer) are more than happy to oblige. Looking on is Carl’s former partner, Katherine (Michaela Watkins, Thanks for Sharing), the assistant station manager considering leaving for a better opportunity that still cares for the man she has unresolved issues with. When Carl is asked to do another hour to boost ratings, he declines, so Tony brings in Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), a similarly granola paint instructor but one that brings a fresh perspective to an audience that didn’t know what they’d been missing. Losing his audience and entourage quickly, Carl is forced to take several steps back in order to look at the big picture of his life and see where he can add some new hues.
Oddity abounds in Paint, and at times it overtakes the picture entirely. The film is ostensibly set in the present day, but Vermont and its inhabitants look like they’ve been stuck in a time warp, especially Bob, I mean Carl, who feels like he fell asleep at Woodstock and woke up in his tricked-out van next to the TV station. The humor is all over the place, from absurdist to slapstick, and I never entirely understood if we were supposed to be taking it all as tongue-in-cheek or if the moments had loftier ambitions. To its good fortune, the tonal imbalance doesn’t extend to the performances, so even if Wilson and company are working against dinky material, their earnest approach makes Paint go down easier for the audience. I’d also like to call out Watkins, an actress that never gets her full due. She’s terrific here as the most level-headed character amidst a bunch of eccentrics.
This isn’t a retelling of the life of Bob Ross through the guise of a character with a different name (not like the rewarding Celine Dion pseudo-biopic Aline from 2020), so I have to wonder why McAdams has Wilson cloned to look like Ross, wild perm and hall. Coming from the Wes Anderson school of film, Wilson is comfortable with weird, so he nestles in nicely, and Paint is convivial at best, too strange for its own good at worst. It won’t change how you look at art, but with some lovely Vermont vistas, it could get you ready to book an autumnal trip later in 2023.