‘Paint’ Review: Owen Wilson Channels a Fictional Bob Ross in Timid and Underpowered Comedy

Brit McAdams’ tale falls short of its comedic and dramatic ambitions.

What could the future possibly hold for an artist if they have grown too comfortable with success? If they have stayed put in that snug place of glory, but the times have moved on fast without them? These are the hefty considerations at the heart of “Paint,” a slight comedy that sadly embraces neither the worthwhile questions that surround its central premise nor the story’s dark humor potential.

That’s too bad, because writer-director Brit McAdams’ narrative feature debut is rooted in a genuinely fascinating subject that apparently served as an inspiration for “Paint.” McAdam’s muse is Bob Ross, a real-life American public television mainstay of the ‘80s and ‘90s. Being the host of a successful PBS show called “The Joy of Painting” during that time, Ross built a loyal audience who loved and were mesmerized by his soothing voice, and even haunted by his creative process and ease with a brush, as Ross slowly created his art in front of curious eyes, narrating it softly and philosophically. While neither Ross nor the phrase “happy little clouds” that he coined is ever mentioned in “Paint,” you can’t deny that Owen Wilson’s Carl Nargle is channeling him, sporting Ross’ iconic perm and frozen-in-time clothes, with an uncanny (if somewhat overstated) resemblance to the late painter.

With his perennially melancholic façade and kindly dewy eyes, Wilson proves that he is the perfect person to play the Ross surrogate Nargle—in the tale, a by-and-large out-of-touch creator who seems like he hasn’t considered in decades what period he belongs to, both looks and ideologies wise.

While this oblivious entitlement should automatically render Carl Nargle as an unlikable and antiquated dinosaur (a critic of his actually goes after Nargle with these points in a ruinous piece), Wilson smartly and compassionately crafts him as a fish-out-of-water rather than a haughty man all too aware of the privileges he’s accustomed to abusing. In other words, you can’t help but feel for the clueless Carl thanks to the good will Wilson effortlessly generates for him.

Nargle’s aforementioned privileges aren’t all that numerous as he is, after all, not the headliner of a high-profile “60 Minutes”-type show, but just a local Vermonter with a quirky sense of fashion and a modest custom van his fans follow from time to time, hoping for Nargle to take them to his signature “special place.” Think of him as a Mr. Rogers of paintings with limited reach, if you will; one who can’t stop painting his state’s beloved Mt. Mansfield over and over again.

While Carl’s fans seem numerous across retirement homes and dive bars alike, the ratings of his show prove that the station is in desperate need of some shakeup. So his boss—the station head Tony (the great Stephen Root)—announces that Carl would have some competition in his field with the arrival of Ambrosia (a resolute and spirited Ciara Renée), a young, talented and revolutionary painter and thinker.

The competition between Ambrosia and Carl is an interesting enough turn, but like everything else in the film it is portrayed with too tentative a sense of humor. The jokes (when they land) don’t do much more than attract a polite smile or two despite the alluring cast delivering them. Equally wasted is Carl’s relationship with the other key women of the station, among them his ex, Katherine, (a delightfully frantic Michaela Watkins), his noticeably young romantic interest Jenna (Lucy Freyer) and a pair of co-workers that run away with the film’s more successful moments of comedy—Wendi McLendon-Covey’s Wendy and Lusia Strus’ Beverly.

We get a growing sense that Carl’s datedness also manifests itself in his old-fashioned, mildly sexist approach to these women. But if he is indeed this outmoded, how did he manage to continue and charm people, including women, all these years? Frustratingly, “Paint” never engages with this question in any convincing manner.

That’s the chief trouble with “Paint,” a film that miscalculates the audience’s affection for Owen Wilson and familiarity with Bob Ross so significantly that it doesn’t ever try to build Nargle as a real, flesh-and-blood personality. Instead, McAdams opts in for a tone that feels distancing in its over-baked whimsy.

While there are a handful of meaningful ideas in here somewhere about the idiosyncratic pretensions and posthumous rewards of the art world and the culture’s obsession with unearned mystique, McAdams only coyly teases these notions. In that regard, the thesis of “Paint” feels just as soft-spoken as Nargle, when the film actually bothers to say something.

Still, there are some visual pleasures across the world that McAdams has built—it’s hard to shrug off Vermont with all its glorious Fall colors (even though New York State reportedly was the Vermont stand-in), red barns and cheese. Patrick Cady’s cinematography captures these elements warmly, while Todd Jeffery’s production design and Allison Pearce’s costumes don’t show the constraints of a tight budget in representing a timeless place that looks like a pleasant vintage postcard.

Elsewhere, the over-labored yet amusing ending of the film seems designed to earn some giggles from Banksy fans. Yet, you can’t shake the feeling that long stretches of “Paint” feel like, well, watching paint dry.