Jul 27, 2023

‘Paint’ Review: Owen Wilson Bob Ross Satire Is Bizarrely Unfunny


The new movie is clearly sending up the gentle personality and legacy of the famed "Joy of Painting" star, but forgets to shade the landscape with any humor or coherence.

Entertainment Critic

Paint concerns a small-time celebrity artist named Carl Nargle (Owen Wilson), and his moniker turns out to be the funniest thing about the film (in theaters April 7), which riffs on Bob Ross and his landscape-painting legacy and spirit with a calmness that never evolves into actual comedy. So unevenly structured that it feels like it was either written on the fly or cut to pieces in the editing room, Brit McAdams’ directorial debut fails to locate a humorous rhythm or coherently develop its collection of characters. It's the skeleton of a promising idea rather than a full-fledged movie.

In the present day, Carl is the toast of his Vermont hometown courtesy of his daily PBS program Paint, which, like Ross’ The Joy of Painting, features him standing at an easel and narrating what he's doing with gentle feel-good aphorisms. Carl has a big puffy afro, wears ornate cowboy shirts, and smokes a curved pipe. In both appearance and demeanor, he comes across as a cross between Ross and The Royal Tenenbaums’ Eli Cash, pitched at a register that's both serene and arrogant.

Carl enchants his viewers, including a group of nursing home senior citizens and a couple of roughnecks at a bar, and he's fawned over by his staffers, including station manager Tony (Stephen Root) and employees Wendy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Jenna (Lucy Freyer), and Katherine (Michaela Watkins), the last of whom was once his true-love girlfriend before fame and betrayal spoiled their romance.

Flashbacks drenched in gauzy lighting elucidate the specific reasons for Carl and Katherine's break-up, which mainly have to do with his philandering heart. But these rewinds are haphazard and clunkily integrated into the narrative.

Formal clumsiness abounds in Paint, such as with regards to Carl's ride: a bright orange van with a license plate that reads "PAINTR," an airbrushed landscape painting on its side, a fold-out sofa in its rear cabin (with a Portuguese flannel blanket) ,and a loudspeaker on its roof that lets Carl speak to those on the street. Early on, locals wave to it while referring to it as "Vantastic," but the moment is carelessly tossed off, and we’re denied a sustained view of its exterior, thereby neutering it as a source of amusement.

Lucy Freyer, Owen Wilson, Stephen Root and Michaela Watkins.

Randomly introducing weak jokes and then barely expanding on or revisiting them is Paint's specialty—a situation confirmed by a later gag involving Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), the area's new painting phenom, whose girlfriends are all acquaintances of her elder relatives. Ambrosia is the fly in Carl's figurative ointment, hired to help the struggling PBS station boost its ratings by taking over a second hour of programming directly following Carl's signature show.

Considering that Carl is the type of full-of-himself buffoon who says, "I feel like sometimes being the total package makes it hard for people to see the gift inside," he bristles at Ambrosia stealing his thunder—and his audience. Once she becomes a sensation courtesy of unconventional paintings of bloody UFOs, Carl begins to fear that his days are numbered, although Paint doesn't bother having him do much about it; the protagonist remains, throughout, as passive as his voice is perpetually hushed.

Slowly pushed out of the PBS spotlight by Ambrosia, Carl's insecurities come to the fore. For years, he's only painted variations on the same landscape of Mount Mansfield, and Paint explains that this is because he's desperate to have one of his pieces shown at the Burlington Museum of Art, whose curator Bradford Lenihan (Michael Pemberton) once coveted such a work. This provides the film with some measure of narrative purpose, if nothing approaching legitimate wit.

McAdams and Wilson are committed to the notion of Carl as a placid Zen-like figure but they can't make up their minds about whether he's callously cocky, cluelessly tender, or merely depressed. The balance between soothing Ross-ian mildness and roiling inner turmoil doesn't take, and though a couple of gags (softly) land—such as Tony understanding that Carl's silence is his way of madly screaming—Wilson never figures out how to mirthfully amalgamate his protagonist's contradictions.

Owen Wilson and Lucy Freyer in Paint.

While Wilson searches in vain for a proper conception of Carl, his fellow cast members are given nothing of substance with which to work. McLendon-Covey and Freyer act enraptured with Carl yet boast not a single identifiable trait, and Root is asked to simply behave desperately as the man tasked with keeping the PBS station afloat—even if that means turning his back on its most famous star. Watkins, however, is most underserved by McAdams’ script. Katherine's newfound romance with Ambrosia seems completely out of the blue and pays no dividends, and revelations about her split with Carl are messy and arbitrary, as well as completely unfunny. Stuck in that strange middle ground between realism and cartoonishness, she's squandered in one yawn-worthy scenario after another.

Unlike a predecessor such as Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy, Paint is a satire too docile to embrace the very absurdity its premise demands. Pivoting an entire film around a Bob Ross-ish artist should be the starting point for craziness, not an end unto itself, and yet McAdams and Wilson refuse to inject their material with zaniness. Instead, scenes in which Carl satisfies his hot-to-trot paramours by gifting them their own landscape paintings—a joke that's undercut by the fact that he then does apparently have sex with them—is the extent of the proceedings’ inspiration.

As for the story itself, well, there isn't much of one, and even Carl's iconic ’do proves an afterthought, save for an early instance of it getting caught in his van's ceiling knobs (because, you see, it's poofy) and a couple of visits to the barber, where it's revealed that he got the style from an old poster chart.

That Carl, and Vermont, are caught in a weird 1970s time-warp—for instance, he's clueless about how cell phone voicemails work—is similarly left hazy and unexploited; it's just one more half-baked element in a film full of them. Repeatedly falling back on John Denver's "Annie's Song" for maximum kitsch, and only generating chuckles from non-sequiturs about Juicy Couture and a young telethon magician, Paint is a blandly tranquil trip to nowhere.

Liked this review? Sign up to get our weekly See Skip newsletter every Tuesday and find out what new shows and movies are worth watching, and which aren't.

Entertainment Critic

Got a tip? Send it to The Daily Beast here.

See Skip newsletter