‘Paint’ review: Owen Wilson feminizing Bob Ross in Limp Comedy
A beloved, publicly accessible painter struggles to stay relevant in this blunt comedy about male fragility.
Channel surfing may be a nostalgic pastime these days, but those who have lived through the mindless boredom of “nothing on TV” probably remember the most impressively boring show ever: “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross. With his signature curly brown afro and soothing voice, Ross was a favorite on PBS and many rainy afternoons. Although it stopped airing new episodes in 1994, the late painter has gained lasting recognition through international reruns, Twitch streams, a Netflix deal, and a YouTube channel. In 2021, Netflix released a documentary about his life, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed”.
A new fictitious film plays on Ross’s status as a pop culture icon without using his name or specific details of his life, instead trading on his distinctive looks and public television paint job. Written and directed by Brit McAdams (“Tosh.0”), “Paint” stars Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle, a respected painter who has a successful daytime show on a Vermont public channel.
Saddle the character with a decidedly harder-to-pronounce name and his nasty habit of sleeping with every woman who works for him, McAdams presents a head-scratching and tone-deaf image of the beloved TV personality. With lighthearted rivalries and old flames as the point of the plot, Wilson must cling for dear life to the caricatured portrait of the hapless small-town hero. Unfortunately, playing cartoonish versions of the lovable fool has become Wilson’s bread and butter in recent years. Even the biggest Wilson fans will surely notice that watching “Paint” is like watching paint dry – except it’s a lot less fun than Bob Ross made it.
“Paint” sets up Carl’s local celebrity status with a bunch of pale women massaging the painter’s hands and soothing his ego once he finishes recording live. The subject of the day (and the past decade) is Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, which he painted in different seasons and times of day. McAdams quickly establishes Carl’s adoring audience in their various settings: a group of rapt seniors in a nursing home, a single middle-aged woman who paints together, and even some local sheep who are unexpectedly mesmerized by Carl’s gentle brushstrokes.
McAdams makes sure that at least three women exist solely to fuss over Carl, wasting the comedic talents of Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lusia Strus, and Lucy Freyer. Station manager Tony (Stephen Root) is equally humble, but Catherine (Michaela Watkins) is decidedly more reserved. Through a series of clunky flashbacks, we learn that Catherine and Carl once had a passionate fling in the back of his van (dubbed “Vantastic”). The rest of their star-studded story is all piped up, as if it’s exciting enough to warrant that much attention, but eventually we learn that Carl’s fame is what caused the mutual infidelity.
©Courtesy of IFC Films/Everett Collection
To boost ratings, Tony hires another painter to take Carl’s place, the younger and bolder Ambrosia (Ciara Renée). Where Carl is comfortable painting the same mountain every day, Ambrosia excites fans with bold depictions of stumps, rocks and… bloody UFOs? Even Catherine’s eyes catch on with fresh energy, and eventually Carl’s work rival becomes her love rival. Carl clearly still harbors decades-old feelings for Catherine, despite hand-feeding fondue to his much younger production assistant at the local Cheesepot Depot. (McAdams seems to think that throwing it into his head that they never have sex makes it look better. Nope.)
But the inconsequential minutiae of the mildly silly plot would be easier to overlook if the characters and low-key tone were anything funny on their own. Carl was almost eerily reserved; One of the film’s running jokes is that no one can ever tell when he’s angry because he speaks so quietly no matter what.
That low hum builds to a pitch on “Paint,” which churns with snail-paced comedy. There’s a general feeling that something a little funny is going on, but it’s buried under so much mocking falsehood that it’s impossible to pick it out. The Vermont jokes are like the musings of a man who’s only ever been in ski season, and as an embarrassingly botched attempt at a critique of sexism by a good-hearted womanizer, “Paint” misses the mark every bit. Bob Ross deserved better.
IFC Films will release “Paint” in theaters on Friday, April 7.
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