Paint is not a Bob Ross biopic – even though, at first glance, Owen Wilson’s appearance with the blonde afro might have you thinking otherwise. As landscape canvas aficionado Carl Nargle, Wilson has the soft-spoken voice, flowery shirt wearing, and love for nature aura of Ross down. He even has a 30-year Vermont-based show on a public service network to boast about. However, writer/director Brit McAdams presents a cavalcade of issues within Nargle’s character that don’t necessarily mesh well because many of the rooting factors have thinness to them.
Carl himself feels out of place in a modern context. He owns a barn, but prefers to spend his time in his Mystery Machine-like van – complete with a bed. Ventures to the local neighborhood barbershop have a haircut designation just for him. Nargle’s show comprises portraits of mountains, trees, and lakes of Mansfield that serve as a calming influence to viewers. The big boss Tony (Stephen Root), feels a ratings crunch (one might be surprised that public access television might fall under this pressure).
To garnish up some steam, Tony brings in young painter Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) to fill time in the new-two hour timeslot and spur some competition. She’s the energy to Carl’s slow and steady wins the race. Instead of electing to paint safe and relaxing landscapes, Ambrosia pushes for UFOs spouting out blood. While Carl floods the television screen with happy thoughts and anecdotes, Ambrosia can paint two canvases in an hour. Paint could have quickly gone down the road of an old-school artist dealing with the heaviness of being pushed out, but Carl has some complications. For one, he’s a bit of a walking HR violation – having various escapades with women around the station.
It usually goes by the cadence of Carl making a painting for a particular lady, them getting into a rendezvous, and him unexpectedly breaking it off — he breaks up with a lady through intercom. There is no shortage of women desiring to be his muse (even though all his paintings are of Mansfield), but Katherine (Michaela Watkins) is the one that got away. McAdams presents a love story you would usually root for under normal circumstances. However, Carl’s character acts utterly naive about why his behavior could be perceived as problematic. Chalk it up to the intoxication of small-town fame. While Carl is presented as someone with a good heart, he knowingly basks in all the glory.
Paint boasts a subplot of Carl’s ambitions of getting a painting into a local museum. This is tied to the story of him and the broken relationship he has with Katherine. By the time we get around to this instance, the film has muddied the waters of his intentions so badly — you can’t help but shrug at the lesson it’s trying to teach. The flashbacks between Carl and Katherine are designed to give more context to their restrained chemistry around each other. It’s the penchant for one-liners that takes off the zest. Katherine’s story of giving up her ambitions for someone that doesn’t see her within the glamour (can you even call it that) feels underserved – even if it’s the most interesting thing Paint has to say.
Ambrosia’s character is fertile ground for an interesting element in Paint – considering her inclusion represents a power shift within the station. However, there is not much besides the radical change in an artistic style that’s given on the surface. There’s a running gag about her hooking up with older women who happen to have gone to school or known her mother. It’s indicative of things Paint leaves on the table for a quick laugh instead of working up to it.
Times change, and so do our interpretations of art. Every artist has felt the crunch of staying relevant in an ever-changing landscape of interest. I suppose a man who is a calming influence throughout many lunch breaks and doctors' offices with happy trees won’t be immune to that. It would be interesting to see what Paint could be if Wilson didn't get locked into the satirization of a famous figure.