Bob Ross, the eclectic, soothing painter of “happy little trees” on public TV for years, is still a beloved figure long after his death. But what if underneath all of that he were a a self-obsessed, womanizing egomaniac who exploited the fame afforded to him by being the big fish in the small pond of PBS television? That is the central premise of Paint, a peculiar little oddity that stars Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle, who has all of the dulcet expressions and mannerisms of Ross. Sounds potentially funny, but the film instead paints itself into a corner of just being sorta weird.
Written and directed by Brit McAdams, Paint isn’t exactly lampooning of Ross or his strange celebrity fame. It doesn’t seem to know what it’s trying to be. Nargle is the most popular public television host in all of Vermont, commanding the adoring affection from his mostly-female crew. Nargle’s home being on PBS, budget problems always loom, although it’s odd to hear the boss (Stephen Root) complain that they’re being trounced in the ratings by other cable networks. With the need to inject some energy into the channel, a hot young upstart painter named Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) begins to move in on Carl’s territory. Unable to cope with being replaced, Carl’s life enters a terrible tailspin, largely because he can’t stop painting the same scene of Mount Mansfield that he’s been painting for years. Ambrosia makes for an exciting alternative who shares in the artistic experience with her audience and promotes creative freedom.
A bit more focus could’ve turned Paint into an enjoyable “war of the artists” movie with Carl and Ambrosia upping the ante to claim PBS superiority. McAdams teases something like that initially, but the film has so many other elements that distract but go nowhere. Carl is sortof a creep, who sleeps with all of the women on his staff, leading to one woman saying that he “uses his brush to seduce and destroy” others. Ouch. It’s a pretty valid criticism. Are we supposed to like this guy? Apparently so, because the humanizing of him includes a curious love story with Katherine (Michaela Watkins), Carl’s producer and ex-girlfriend who he still carries a torch for. But she begins exploring a romance with Ambrosia, which the film handles with such timidity it’s almost embarrassing. There’s also Carl’s need for acceptance as an artist, and a long-held dream to have his art displayed in the Burlington Museum of Art.
Paint feels like someone had one great idea, Owen Wilson as Bob Ross, but couldn’t find a way to keep that funny past the sketch stage. Most of the subplots are like throwaways from bad sitcoms and don’t really make much sense, which is why McAdams shows so little commitment to seeing them through. An IFC Films release, the film actually resembles the light idiosyncratic tone of their mockumentarys, or of a particularly obscure Wes Anderson comedy.
Wilson gives his all to the role, but his Bob Ross impression wears thin very quickly. And again, it’s unclear if we’re even supposed to root for him. The film hits him pretty hard, but McAdams isn’t willing to commit to either making him a good guy with a few issues handling his celebrity, or making him a total creep. If Paint had more laughs, maybe all of its other problems could be overlooked. But as it stands, watching paint dry is a more acceptable use of your time.
Paint opens in theaters on April 7th.