While PAINT falls mostly flat in its endeavors, there is some beauty to be found in how the filmmakers recall their sources of inspiration.
A recent but fleeting pastime in my family household was watching episodes of Bob Ross paint. A hushed, soothing voice coated the living room with comfort. Time stood still. The reality of our world suddenly melted away. It’s easy to understand Bob Ross’s influence and the self-discoveries he inspired. He painted pictures of perfect places you would want to visit. He took you to where anything felt possible. You could create wonderlands. You could move mountains. You could pick up a paintbrush and make something out of it. Ross’s impact could be felt not only in the pictures he painted, but in his words of wisdom. In each episode of his long-running PBS show The Joy of Painting, he would explain what art felt like. He would start with a blank canvas and say, “On here, you can do anything that your heart desires.” We found it wondrous how he started with nothing, and half an hour later, had created a mesmerizing landscape. It is no wonder that upon watching his work, fellow artists across various mediums would feel inspired to create. The film PAINT, written and directed by Brit McAdams, is a character study that paints an imperfect picture of a Ross-esque artist.
In PAINT, Owen Wilson stars as Carl Nargle, Vermont’s number one public television painter who has enjoyed decades of high ratings and comfortable status. He seems content with his signature perm, custom van, and devoted audience. Carl never questioned his place on Burlington Vermont’s PBS station. He assumed his position was evergreen, and that everyone would always be interested in the “special place” his paintings took them. But his work has become dull. On each episode of his show, he paints Vermont’s tallest mountain, Mt. Mansfield. Meanwhile, the station is losing ratings, and modern audiences are craving something new. As the station’s assistant manager Katherine (Michaela Watkins) is about to leave her job, the manager Tony (Stephen Root) hires a young and talented painter Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) to reinvigorate the channel. When Ambrosia arrives on the scene to host her own show, and ratings climb, Carl questions the validity of his talent and the legacy he’ll leave behind. Resting on the laurels of his success, he does not find it easy to adapt to a changing world. As he stumbles, holding onto his sense of place, those closest to him discover that the artist they had respected is a narcissist who used his status as a means of seduction.
PAINT begins in the middle of an episode taping with Carl. Following the show, everyone speaks in hushed tones, from the studio’s management to Carl himself. Made clear from the start, Carl Nargle lives in a soft spoken bubble with a soft color palette. It feels as though everyone and everything exists under a dome. Much like Carl and his unwillingness to change, the film is frozen in a relatively modern time period with an antiquated filter. Even in flashback scenes, one of which appears early on to convey that Carl and Katherine used to date, no effort is made to change appearances that would differentiate such scenes from the present day. From the dated-looking costume design and cinematography to the production design, you feel trapped in the past. This feeling of being trapped extends to the majority of characters in the story, who are eclipsed by Carl’s own dreams and aspirations.
Whether Katherine, co-workers Wendy (Wendi McLendon-Covey) and Beverly (Luisa Strus), or Carl’s much younger love interest Jenna (Lucy Freyer), everyone at the studio seems to be defined solely by their relationship to Carl. The film lacks in providing them with a substantial agency of their own, which also puts a limitation on the talent of these women. It doesn’t help matters that Carl, the focus of the film and the perspective you are meant to follow, is written as a one-dimensional character. Wilson brings a softness and subtle sense of humor to the role. When the rug is pulled from underneath his character, the actor conveys a resonating sense of disappointment. But his performance is ultimately held back from a screenplay that feels uncertain which direction to go in. The film has an odd tone and hints of dark comedy. There are some chuckle-worthy moments, especially ones that involve long awkward pauses. But the film feels far too reined in to really soar, as though hesitant to commit fully to its weirdness. The end result is a forgettable one of awkward scenes and stilted dialogue, lacking the brush strokes of confident direction.
The story of PAINT finds conflict in themes of competition and artistic legacy. One of the more interesting characters of the film is Ambrosia, played wonderfully by Ciara Renée. She brings an invigorating quality to the screen, much like her character reignites the studio with creativity. After years of viewers watching Carl Nargle’s paint dry, Ambrosia walks into the studio and gives them not landscapes, but a UFO that spills blood. She puts into perspective that Carl had essentially been on autopilot for years, a startling realization for an artist especially after working for decades. The dynamic of her character’s different style inspiring a new generation of people, in addition to loyal viewers of the show, is under-explored. One of the film’s missed opportunities is keeping her character at a distance, and focusing more on Ambrosia being the catalyst for Carl’s self-discovery about his legacy (which is also under-explored). The film attempts to paint a picture of Carl searching for the real “special place” his paintings take audiences to, and whether he’s ready to burn the old and welcome a new jolt of creativity. Despite intriguing themes at play, the film feels drastically lacking in an engaging story at its core. It’s not only a paint-by-numbers portrait of an artist, but one that has no clear grasp on which story to really focus on.
Just by the casting of Owen Wilson as a Bob Ross-inspired painter, the film has glimmers of potential to be an entertaining and eccentric watch. The beginning alone is a fitting introduction for its source of inspiration. While painting on a canvas, Wilson’s Carl offers, “There is nothing like having the one you hold dearest, nearest, when the world turns cold. That’s the picture we all want to paint.” This is the kernel of wisdom one would find in an episode of The Joy of Painting. There really is nothing like appreciating and spending time with the people you love, through the ups and downs of life. It is not about painting the perfect picture, but embracing an imperfect one. PAINT tries to apply that sentiment to the character of Carl Nargle, offering a very flawed portrait of someone who creates beautiful serene landscapes. While PAINT falls mostly flat in its endeavors, there is some beauty to be found in how the filmmakers recall their sources of inspiration. It’s not just through the protagonist and his distinct hairstyle or hushed tone of voice. It’s also (on a more resonating level) in new creatives such as Ambrosia. It’s in the aesthetic of the film, in the choice of music like Dolly Parton’s Coat of Many Colors. It’s in the show’s audience, who find comfort in watching a blank canvas transform with the stroke of a brush.
Should be Considered: None
Release Date: April 7, 2023
Where to Watch: In Theaters
Lives in Canada and loves a good coffee date
Favorite Actress: Kate Winslet
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