What if Bob Ross (or someone very similar to him) wasn’t so great off screen? That is the central question Paint, a film writer/director Brit McAdams has been working on for over a decade. Centering on a Ross-esque character named Carl Nargle (a very well cast Owen Wilson), Paint reflects on what it would mean if a beloved figure was not as beloved as one might expect.
PAINT ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Carl, who shares Ross’ curly fro and gentle vibe, hosts a painting show on a Vermont PBS station. He is a local celebrity thanks to his calm landscape paintings and memorable catchphrases. His show has been the station’s No. 1 program for decades. That’s where the Ross comparisons end: behind the scenes, Carl is a ladies’ man who sleeps a succession of his female colleagues in a custom van. He’s caught up in his own hype, which comes to a head when a new painter, Ambrosia (Ciara Renee), begins to capture more and more of his audience. His boss Katherine (Michaela Watkins), once his girlfriend, announces that she is leaving for another station. The realization that Carl is losing his spotlight sends him spiraling out of control.
although Paint is technically a parody, it is much more serious in tone than you might expect from the poster or the trailer. The characters, despite behaving badly at times, aren’t that funny – which is exactly what makes these situations funny. For Carl, this is the absolute end of the world. The relatively low stakes are not low for him. To prevent a negative headline from coming out, Carl steals the newspapers from people’s lawns, drives his van down the street, and stops at each house one by one. When asked to paint a station donor’s portrait, he paints the same mountain scenery he’s done in every episode of his show.
Despite the marketing, this is not it Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby or Running Hard: The Story of Dewey Cox. It’s a subtler, weirder take on celebrity and the impact of losing your fame. Carl, who does not like change, finds himself in the middle of a true existential crisis. That does mean that there are fewer laughable moments here than other similar parody films. Some scenes are tonally strange, which will appeal to some viewers and feel off-putting to others. But thanks to the visual style, which evokes a vintage palette and lighting, and Wilson’s sympathetic portrayal of Carl, Paint has its own kind of indie movie charm.
The rest of the cast, including Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root and Lusia Strus, add to this eccentric allure. At first glance, of course, it’s nice to see an iconic figure like Ross filter through a new lens. But something more poignant is going on with Carl, who eventually realizes he should never have broken up with Katherine. Has Carl been focusing on the wrong things all these years, blinded by the spotlight he’s been under? Who is he but TV’s Carl Nargle? It’s both hilarious and sad when Carl comes to the local art museum expecting to be included in the collection. He is famous, but not that famous.
Stories that arise from assumptions are usually interesting, even if they are imperfect in execution. Paint‘s story gets a bit jumbled in the middle, though the unusual storytelling choices are in sync with the film’s tone. The funniest moment is at the end, when you realize what the future holds for Carl, but this isn’t the comedy you hope it is. But like Ross, it’s attractive and comes from a good place.
Observer Reviews are regular reviews of new and notable movies.