There are plenty of movies whose meaning can be enigmatic. Sometimes the filmmaker sets out to make an “art film,” where the imagery is often more important than the story. Other times, they tell a story that’s so complex, it’s almost impossible to decipher what the overall message may be.
And then there are films like Paint, which seem straightforward on the surface, but become more puzzling as they go along. As the film begins, Carl Nargle (Owen Wilson) is a beloved painter/TV host at a PBS station in Burlington, Vermont. The crew – comprised mostly of women – at the station fawns over him, and viewers are shown to be enthralled by his supposed brilliance.
His life starts to get shaken up when station manager Tony (Stephen Root) and aspirational producer Katherine (Michaela Watkins) bring in Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) for what is initially a complementary painting show. Slowly but surely, though, the crew and viewers start to transfer their affection to Ambrosia, leaving the long-tenured Carl in a crisis of confidence.
Written and directed by Brit McAdams, the film never makes clear what it’s trying to be. Since it stars Wilson, Root, Watkins, and Wendi McLendon-Covey, comedy seems to be the priority. While there are some funny moments in the film, it is definitely not a laugh riot. Most of the humor is deadpan, with everyone acting in a similar manner to the classic SNL sketch “Schweddy Balls,” but the result is stale and boring.
Nargle is clearly supposed to be based on Bob Ross, but to what end? The blown-out perm on Wilson’s head is a great visual gag, but other than the initial chuckle of recognition, along with emulating Ross’ style of painting “happy little trees,” the purpose is unclear. Nargle is a narcissist who has let his popularity go to his head, an idea that’s antithetical to that of the easy-going Ross, but that’s a thin premise on which to put the entire plot of a movie.
McAdams also tries to make a lot of a rotating series of relationships in the film. Nargle is said to have been with most of the women at the station, but the storytelling around those flings doesn’t always jibe with how they currently act toward him. Ambrosia takes a shine to Katherine, but the approach to them being together is so haphazard that it never lands.
Each of the actors is fine in his or her own way, but none of the characters are so compelling that they elevate the film. Wilson is a skilled comic actor and makes some moments funnier than they would have been otherwise, but he’s not asked to stretch that much. Renée, best known for playing Hawkgirl in various DC Comics TV shows, has a unique energy in the film, but it’s mostly wasted in an odd storyline.
McAdams can never make a compelling argument for the story he’s trying to tell in Paint, and the film suffers because of it. Groupies of Bob Ross and/or PBS programs in general might find a particular pleasure watching it, with everyone else left to wonder why it was made in the first place.
Paint will screen six times through Sunday, April 9 at the Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth.