‘Paint’ Review: Owen Wilson Nails the Caricature in Satire That Otherwise Lacks Texture
If you’ve seen promos for Paintyou’ve probably figured out that Brit McAdams’ comedy starring Owen Wilson is inspired by Bob Ross, the artist who hosted the low-fi PBS series. The Joy of Painting for many years before succumbing to lymphoma at age 52 in 1995. Creating landscape paintings in under 30 minutes, Ross was an unwitting progenitor of ASMR, with his endlessly laid-back demeanor, his soft speaking style and his soothing manner that exuded a sort of hypnotic calm. He was also a distinctive visual presence with his impossibly large permed hair, thick beard and mustache, invariably dressed in jeans and a light-colored shirt.
As Carl Nagle, who hosts a Vermont public television show about painting, Wilson channels Ross’ distinctive persona not only visually but also spiritually. The casting feels dead-on, since Wilson has made a career specialty of playing laid-back, slightly dazed characters who seem stoned out of their minds even while perfectly sober.
The Bottom Line
A thousand words would have been better.
Unfortunately, that resemblance is one of the few successful aspects of Paint, which satirizes Ross without figuring out anything particularly interesting to say about him or his unlikely folk-hero popularity. Lapsing into tired romantic comedy tropes in which Carl wrestles with career decline while juggling past and present girlfriends, the film feels as superficial as the paintings Carl cranks out in distressingly formulaic fashion.
It begins cutely enough, with Carl seen walking through a forest, pipe in hand, in such a blissed-out state you expect animated birds to land on his shoulders. He’s a big deal in Burlington, Vermont, where his TV series has a rapt audience of everyone from nursing home residents to drunks in bars. In every episode, he thanks his viewers for allowing him to take them to “a special place.” The license plate on his van, which comes equipped with a handy fold-out bed, proudly proclaims “Paintr.” He’s also apparently irresistible to women, including a much younger, lovestruck co-worker (Lucy Freyer) with whom he begins an awkward romance.
Unfortunately, Carl’s ratings are slipping, and viewers are becoming tired of his paintings depicting the same local mountain. His status is even more threatened by the arrival of a younger, personable female artist, Ambrosia (Ciara Renee), who becomes the host of a competing program on the same station, Painting with Ambrosia. Carl soon finds himself emotionally adrift, winning his support from his ratings-minded station manager Tony (a very funny Stephen Root) and show producer/ex-girlfriend Katherine (Michaela Watkins). When he’s eventually let go, he winds up teaching a university course to a classroom full of increasingly bored students.
It’s hard to get worked up about Carl’s downward spiral, since his success seemed so silly to begin with. More crucially, writer-director McAdams doesn’t mine the character’s singular mojo for fruitful satirical results aside from a few moments, as when Carl angrily storms into Tony’s office and silently glares at him. “Are you shouting at me?” Tony asks. “Yes,” replied Carl.
To his credit, McAdams nails the period atmosphere perfectly, down to an era-appropriate soundtrack featuring such minor ’70s classics as Steve Forbert’s “Romeo’s Tune” and Don Williams’ “I Believe in You.” And by the film’s conclusion, there have been a few effective gags revolving around such things as the way artists’ works grow dramatically in value once they’re dead, as well as a sly takeoff on Banksy.
But much like its central character and his quickly manufactured, generic paintings, the film plays it too safe, content to mine its inspiration for easy laughs. Despite Wilson’s on-the-nose caricature and the enjoyable comic performances of such supporting players as Lusia Strus and the ever-reliable Wendi McLendon-Covey, Paint never delves beneath the surface.
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