Brit McAdams’ Paint is the kind of oddity that will cross our minds several years from now, and we’ll have to ferociously Google it to make sure we didn’t dream it. This weird, spacey reworking of the life and work of Bob Ross is sure to frustrate some, but in the same way films like Butter and Cedar Rapids intermix light satire with quirky comedy, I’m happy to say it worked for me.
Like many, I initially perceived the film to be a true-to-life biopic on TV’s most iconic painter. Bob Ross’ PBS show The Joy of Painting was a mainstay on local cable throughout the ’80s and ’90s. In the same way Mister Rogers has a warm place in the hearts of millions, Ross’ gentle demeanor and humility is still connecting with audiences who weren’t even alive to see his show during its more than 400-episode run.
With that in mind, the ardently negative reception to Paint — from regular viewers, at least — isn’t entirely surprising. Most will approach this thinking the film is at the very least a loose retelling of Bob Ross’ life. But there are no “happy little clouds” to be found in McAdams’ directorial debut.
While Owen Wilson is undeniably channeling his inner Ross in both appearance and cadence, this story revolves around a poofy-haired painter who is past his prime and is being nudged out of the door by a contemporary and a failing network, with a crew who is tired of his womanizing ways.
Wilson is Carl Nargle, whose PBS Burlington program “Paint with Carl Nargle” has fans in every retirement home and dive bar across the country. Despite his devotion to the network, with more than 4,000 episodes and an equal number of paintings of Mount Mansfield to go along with them, the ratings have tumbled in recent years, prompting station head Tony (Stephen Root) to invite some competition into the mix. Enter Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), a young upstart painter whose canvases wind up inviting UFOs, blood, and other subversive elements into the mix. Gone is a random bush or a peaceful sunset.
Carl’s crew has a complicated relationship with the otherwise beloved painter. Carl has had out-of-office romances with everyone from his ex, Katherine (Michaela Watkins), a much younger assistant (Lucy Freyer), and some other past flames in Wendy McLendon-Covey and Lusia Strus. Between the bad elements of those relationships finally coming to a head, and Ambrosia’s show seeing a rapid ascension in ratings, Carl’s universe is caving in on him and all he can do is watch the paint dry as it will.
Much like Ross, Carl himself is a relic of a bygone, more peaceful time in American culture when celebrities didn’t have to be proactive to get noticed. His old-fashioned sensibilities somewhat explain his womanizing sensibilities, or his downright sexism at other times. Wilson is a convincing personality throughout, and his deadpan delivery sells McAdams’ approach, which I think can be appropriately defined as “understated outrageousness.”
McAdams favors dry humor as opposed to overblown situational antics. Beneath all the ribbing of an artist so consumed by his own caricature is a reminder just how seriously everyone involved takes their craft. Paint is a very quiet movie. For a comedy, even one as dry as it is, nobody from Carl to his coworkers laugh or smile very much. They’re all deeply serious about their work, and things off the camera are not as simple as serene as they are on the canvas.
One of the most entertaining scenes coming during a telethon for PBS Burlington, with the opportunity for viewers to bid to have their portrait painted either by Carl or Ambrosia. It turns into a nasty bit of competition before a live studio audience, and ends with Carl exposing himself as only being able to paint one particular scenery. It’s hilarious, especially the barbs he exchanges with Ambrosia while the two furiously stroke their brushes.
At only 96 minutes, Paint shouldn’t feel as long as it does. It meanders for quite a bit of its second act, working its way to an inevitable third act where Carl will go off the deep-end and break from his persistent misfortunes. Working to at least keep us engaged is the soundtrack, which is a rock-solid mix of oldies by the likes of Dolly Parton, Gordon Lightfoot, and John Denver.
McAdams’ vision for the project has sadly found itself wayward in a sea of negative criticism. Maybe more concretion into the film’s themes would’ve served it better. But its willingness to use a beloved cultural icon as the basis for a slightly dark, off-kilter comedy earned my respect early and made me laugh often.
NOTE: As of this writing, Paint is now available to rent on a variety of streaming services.
Starring: Owen Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Ciara Renée, Stephen Root, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lucy Freyer, Lusia Strus, and Michael Pemberton. Directed by: Brit McAdams.
Steve Pulaski has been reviewing movies since 2009 for a barrage of different outlets. He graduated North Central College in 2018 and currently works as an on-air radio personality. He also hosts a weekly movie podcast called "Sleepless with Steve," dedicated to film and the film industry, on his YouTube channel. In addition to writing, he's a die-hard Chicago Bears fan and has two cats, appropriately named Siskel and Ebert!