What if Bob Ross (or someone very much like him) wasn’t so wonderful off the screen? This is the question at the heart of Paint, a film writer/director Brit McAdams has been working on for over a decade. Centered on a Ross-like figure named Carl Nargle (a very well-cast Owen Wilson), Paint reflects on what it would mean if a beloved figure wasn’t as beloved as one might expect.
PAINT ★★★ (3/4 stars)
Carl, who shares Ross’ curly ‘fro and soft-spoken vibe, hosts a painting show on a Vermont PBS station. He’s a local celebrity thanks to his calm landscape paintings and memorable catchphrases. His show has been the station’s No. 1 program for decades. It’s there that the Ross comparisons end: behind the scenes Carl is a ladies man who beds a succession of his female co-workers 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 she’s 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’s far more serious in tone than you’d 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. To Carl, this is the absolute end of the world. The relatively low stakes aren’t low to him. To prevent a negative newspaper headline from getting out, Carl steals the papers off people’s lawns, driving his van down the street and stopping at each individual house one by one. When asked to paint a station donor’s portrait, he paints the same mountain landscape he’s created on every episode of his show.
Despite its marketing, this is not Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby or Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story. It’s a subtler, odder look at celebrity and the impact of losing one’s fame. Carl, who is not one for change, is in the midst of a true existential crisis. That does mean there are less laugh-out-loud moments here than other similar parody films. Some of the scenes are tonally strange, which will appeal to certain viewers and feel off-putting to others. But thanks to the visual style, which evokes a vintage palette and lighting, and Wilson’s likable portrayal of Carl, Paint has its own sort of indie-movie charm.
The rest of the cast, which includes Wendi McLendon-Covey, Stephen Root and Lusia Strus, add to this off-kilter allure. On the surface, of course, it’s fun to see an iconic figure like Ross filtered through a new lens. But there’s something more poignant at play with Carl, who eventually realizes he should never have broken up with Katherine. Has Carl focused on the wrong things for all these years, blinded by the spotlight he’s been under? Who is he if not the Carl Nargle from TV? It’s both hilarious and sad when Carl shows up to the local art museum expecting to be included in its collection. He’s famous, but not that famous.
Stories that emerge from supposition are usually interesting, even if they’re imperfect in execution. Paint’s narrative gets a bit jumbled in the middle, although the unusual storytelling choices are in sync with the movie’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 may hope it is. But, like Ross, it’s appealing and comes from a good place.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.