A film review by Craig J. Koban May 29, 2023



2023, PG-13, 92 mins.

Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle  /  Michaela Watkins as Katherine  /  Wendi McLendon-Covey as Wendy  /  Ciara Renée as Ambrosia long  /  Stephen Root as Tony  /  Lucy Freyer as Jenna  /  Denny Dillon as PBS Host  /  Evander Duck Jr. as Reuben

Written and directed by Brit McAdams

If you go into PAINT (as I did) completely blind, then it would be easy to assume that this is some sort of biopic of public broadcasting art legend Bob Ross, who became a cult phenomenon for his soft spoken inspirational painting show that ran on PBS for many years up until his death in 1995.  His nationally syndicated THE JOY OF PAINTING (1983-1994) has recently been picked up by modern day streaming services to play it on permanent rewind for a whole new generation of Ross aficionados.  When I took a cursory glance at the teaser trailer and poster for PAINT, I was pretty convinced that this was going to be a dramedy of Ross' life and times, featuring Owen Wilson as the big-haired and big-hearted painter extraordinaire.  

Alas, writer/director Brit McAdams pulls a highly strange and annoying game of pure bait and switch here.  

His film, based on what I've read, has been on a Black List of most-liked unproduced screenplays from the early part of the last decade.  It deals with an artist that - yup - has an instructional painting show on - uh huh - PBS that features episodes of him - you betcha! - painting landscapes with relative ease while smoothly and calmly pontificating on life and art like some sort of Zen-like figure.  

But PAINT's main character is not Bob Ross, but rather a Vermont-based artist named Carl Nargle, whose public-access exploits have made him a minor celebrity, but he soon finds himself entrenched in multiple dicey relationships with multiple wrong women on the work front.

Within a few short minutes of watching PAINT, I was like...wait a minute...what?!  This isn't about Bob Ross?  This isn't even an ANCHORMAN-infused period satire/comedy about Ross?  It's actually about someone else entirely that seems wholly based on Ross?  PAINT wants to use Ross as a template to tell its own story about its own character, but it wants to have its cake and eat it too.  This is a film that asks audiences to constantly think about Bob Ross, but also seems to be constantly reminding the audience that this is not about Ross at all.  As a result, PAINT comes across as an awkwardly constructed, creatively bankrupt, and, worse yet, really dull and pointless endeavor.  



And Wilson himself - who's capable of being incredibly amusing and effective with just the right role and material - really seems to be struggling with the challenge of playing Bob Ross...er...I mean Carl Nargle.  The actor can play serene and folksy hustler parts in his sleep, but here oddly occupies a middle ground between acting like he's on an SNL sketch and evoking a genuinely grounded human being.  He kind of looks like Ross, with his gigantic perm, bushy beard, and calming inflections, although it doesn't take long into PAINT to realize that Owen's gift for Ross mimicry is all surface value and not all that great.  

Anyhoo', as the film opens we're introduced to Carl painting the landmark of Mt. Mansfield...something which he repeats over and over again as the story progresses.  Even though his painting show on PBS is a minor hit with a loyal fanbase, Carl seems to be in a creative and professional funk.  A newer, younger, and more vivacious rival painter in Ambrosia (Ciara Renee) shows up and follows his time slot.  Not only is she gaining more attention and viewers, but she's able to paint not one, but two pieces in just one time slot, which makes the introverted narcissist that is Carl feel threatened.  Hell, even his once former ally in his station manager, Tony (Stephen Root, in a thankless role), is having a hard time convincing himself of Carl's on-air relevance anymore.  Concurrent to this is Carl's frankly inappropriate sexual liaisons with Katherine (Michaela Watkins), Tony's assistant who's holding a big crush on Carl.  Carl also has a history with another station worker in Wendy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), but he seems hopelessly oblivious to her advances.  Then there's Jenna (Lucy Fryer), yet another station employee who can't get herself out of Carl's vortex.

There's a kernel of an interesting tale here involving commentary on the nature of low-stakes fame and how a minor TV celeb that has a very narrow zone of influence lets his self-inflated stature get the better of him.  Carl is a pretty pathetic creation in PAINT, someone that seems egregiously time warped from the 70s (as far as his sense of style, vehicle of choice, and social norms goes), but he fails to understand why he's nowhere near as big of a deal as he thinks he is within the recesses of his tunnel visioned mind.  He's so pitifully consumed by his legacy that he can't recognize a variety of warning signs that keep rearing their ugly heads.  He can't see the forest because the happy trees are in the way.  Again, on a thematic level, PAINT seems interesting, but McAdams seems to have no idea what to do within this bizarre sandbox that he's concocted.  What could have been a razor sharp satire of white male privilege via a small potatoes man instead falls flat on its face, mostly because there's inherently nothing smart or substantial about the handling of the material here.    

I think that Wilson wants Carl to be more likeable than he's clearly written on the page.  Deep down, this man is a contemptuously selfish-minded a-hole that - cough, cough -  paints a quaint public image of himself as a chill and inviting art instructor that actually masks a problematic womanizer who seems to have a creepily easy time getting just about any of his female colleagues into his orange van and onto its fold-down bed inside.  Wilson plays Carl as an offbeat weirdo, but he's kind of a two-faced cretin when everything's said and done.  One thing that I found borderline offensive about PAINT was its paper thin handling of its female characters, most of whom are either salivating at the mouths with the prospect of being laid by Carl or are presented as other types of simplistic caricatures; they barely register as human beings.  Take one of them, for instance: Jenna.  She professes to Carl that she's a hardcore vegan.  She's also so hardcore sex crazed to be with Carl that she allows him to feed her lamb out of a fondue.  Coming to grips with the fact that she betrayed her standards to be with Carl (and knowing that she ate animal flesh), she abruptly vomits.  This...is supposed to be...funny?  PAINT pains to do better with Ambrosia, but she seems like a peculiar cipher of a character.   And then there's Katherine, who's perhaps the most potentially intriguing woman in PAINT, but even her story arc never seems to germinate with enough depth or interest.

PAINT aims squarely for weirdness, but completely allows for that to substitute for sophisticated satire and smart and hearty laughs.  The deeper I got into this film the more I was left with nagging thoughts about what McAdams was trying to do and say here, not to mention that its core audience seems to be murky.  This is not for Bob Ross diehards, seeing as Carl is portrayed in a less than flattering light.  It's not really for those that think that Ross' life and image is prime real estate for a comedy of manners that hopes to demystify him.  PAINT is mindlessly DOA on many fronts: It's not a good workplace comedy about the trials and tribulations of public broadcasting.  It's not a good satirical take on a B-grade celebrity with delusions of grandeur.  It's not a good battle of the sexes commentary piece (the rivalry between Carl and Ambrosia never pays off as handsomely as the makers want here).  Imagine if Mike Judge and Jared Hess were combined into one director and haphazardly made a film without much of a conceptual roadmap and you'd basically get this.  PAINT lacks humor, edge, and, more damagingly, a reason for even existing.  Why not just commit to making a movie about Bob Ross versus giving us this ultra pale wanna-be persona?  Why make Carl Nargle such a clone of Ross on multiple fronts and put him in a film that really has nothing to say about the Bob Rosses of the world?  I got more insight into watching a re-run of THE JOY OF PAINTING on Netflix than I did with watching PAINT.  

In terms of lazy and total cop-out films...this is up there.

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