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Monday, May 27, 2024

Paint Review

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As a premise, Owen Wilson sporting a Bob Ross afro and assuming the genteel PBS painter’s persona for an original comedy sounds like a kitschy classic in the making. Unfortunately, Paint — the story of Carl Nargle, Vermont's #1 public television painter — can’t overcome that common curse of being a fun idea that’s executed poorly. What should have been an eccentric Anchorman-esque romp about reality finally catching up with a self-absorbed local celeb is instead a meandering, annoying rom-com that’s not very funny and isn’t even a little romantic.

Paint opens with a lot of promise, introducing us to Carl Nargle’s (Owen Wilson) insular world that exists entirely within the town limits of Burlington, Vermont. Visually and temperamentally modeled on real painter Bob Ross, Carl has spent two decades as the host of the local “hit” PBS show, Paint with Carl Nargle. Unlike Ross, Carl is the station hottie, drooled over by every woman on staff, including his ex, Katherine (Michaela Watkins), the beleaguered assistant to the station’s general manager (Stephen Root). In town, seniors, bar flies, and soccer moms are just as rapt with attention as he whispers encouraging phrases while painting pedestrian landscapes of natural landmarks. He’s clearly coasting on the townspeople not getting out much, or having a reliable cable subscription.

Writer/director Brit McAdams and cinematographer Patrick Cady establish the oddness of Carl’s world vividly, giving him and Burlington an out-of-time quality that feels like they’re stuck in the perpetual ’70s aesthetic of any poorly-funded PBS station in America. But that schtick gets more confusing as it becomes clear this is a contemporary story and Carl’s bubble finally bursts with GM Tony’s decision to inject some youngblood into their lineup. Enter Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) and her upstart show, Painting with Ambrosia. She’s prolific, has actual talent, and paints outside the box. Nargle is immediately put on the backfoot, threatened by everyone being enamored with Ambrosia’s winds of change and her ability to steal all the focus effortlessly.

For those expecting a hilarious, Zoolander-like rivalry between the two “talents,” temper your expectations. McAdams touches on it with a mildly funny Pledge Drive sequence, but on the whole is more interested in charting the breathtakingly dumb, 22-year, dysfunctional relationship between Carl and Katherine. Through flashbacks and their current dating pursuits, we’re made to suffer through Carl thoughtlessly marginalizing Katherine’s feelings as he asexually fawns over his harem of horny female admirers. It’s rammed home that he’s got skills at stringing along plenty of women who are desperate to attract his favor and then serially let him off without any rancor when he moves on. As the shiny penny, Ambrosia — for some reason that remains unclear — suddenly bursts his Picasso-like hold over the women in town so that he’s got to face his overall mediocrity as a boyfriend, lothario, and artist.

There’s nothing to root for with Carl as his cluelessness becomes relentlessly tedious and rarely funny.


For a hot second, McAdams seems like he wants to explore the mercurial nature of fame for artists when the next-best-thing suddenly shows up, stealing all the thunder. Using a Ross-like figure, with his ASMR voice and inability to show any real anger, to take a poke at fame could have been brilliant. But that potential is left in the dust as the script instead meanders through a surprise lesbian relationship, Carl dating an employee half his age, and most hilariously, trying to make us believe that Katherine and Carl are soulmates. In fact, the last 30 minutes is almost entirely a belabored exercise in corralling all the rom-com cliches to give Carl an unearned epiphany. All I kept thinking was, “Someone get Katherine out of this town! Michaela Watkins and her character deserve way better than this.”

Everyone deserves better than what Paint gives them. The talented supporting cast, which includes Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey, are woefully underserved. And while Owens is game with all the Ross accoutrement and affectations, Carl is never sketched out as more than a shallow parody. There’s nothing to root for with Carl as his cluelessness becomes relentlessly tedious and rarely funny. If only McAdams had written a more potent satire and comedy for Wilson and company to go nuts with instead of this limp “romance,” Paint wouldn’t feel like such a disappointingly banal paint-by-numbers set.

Verdict

Paint wants to have the heart and whimsy of quirky rom-coms like Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure or Palm Springs. But instead, McAdams builds a premise around a Bob Ross satire and then delivers a tedious rom-com around Wilson’s clueless Nargle and his doormat ex, Katherine. Somehow, he manages to make a 96-minute “comedy” feel hours-long as we watch Nargle flounder with being a washed-up local celeb who has taken everything in his life for granted. A PBS Pledge drive is more entertaining.

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