Paint review: Owen Wilson is a Bob Ross womanizer in Limp Comedy

A popular public-facing painter struggles to stay relevant in this subdued comedy about male fragility.

Channel surfing might be a nostalgic pastime these days, but those who’ve experienced the mindless boredom of finding “nothing on TV” will probably remember the most convincingly boring show of all time: “The Joy of Painting,” starring Bob Ross. With his signature curly brown afro and soothing voice, Ross was a fixture on PBS and on many a rainy afternoon. Although no new episodes aired in 1994, the late painter gained lasting notoriety through international reruns, Twitch streams, a Netflix deal and a YouTube channel. In 2021, Netflix released a documentary about his life, Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.

Without using his name or specific details from his life, “Paint” in a new fictional film plays with Ross’ status as a pop culture icon, instead it is about his distinctive look and the setting of the public television painting show. Written and directed by Brit McAdams (“Tosh.0”), “Paint” stars Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle, a revered painter with a successful daytime show on a public-access channel in Vermont.

Saddling the character with a decidedly harder to pronounce name And an awkward habit of sleeping with every woman who works for him, McAdams presents a head-scratching and toneless picture of the beloved TV personality. Aside from a mild rivalry and an old flame, Wilson must cling for his life to the caricatured portrait of the hapless small-town hero with no plot point in sight. Unfortunately, playing cartoonish versions of endearing nonsense has become Wilson’s bread and butter in recent years. Even the biggest Wilson fans will surely find that watching “Paint” is a lot like watching paint dry – only less fun than Bob Ross made it out to be.

“Paint” establishes Carl’s local celebrity status with a barrage of flattering women who massage his painting hand and soothe his ego once he’s done recording live. His subject of choice of the day (and of the past decade) is Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, which he paints in different seasons and times of the day. McAdams quickly finds Carl’s adoring audience in their various milieus: a group of ecstatic seniors in a nursing home , a middle-aged single woman who paints along, and even a couple of local bar flies who unexpectedly become mesmerized by Carl’s gentle brushstrokes.

McAdams ensures that at least three women present are only there to look after Carl and squanders the comedic talents of Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lusia Strus and Lucy Freyer. Station Manager Tony (Stephen Root) is just as submissive, but Catherine (Michaela Watkins) is far more reserved. Through a series of clunky flashbacks, we learn that Catherine and Carl once had a passionate affair in the back of his van (dubbed “Vantastic”). The rest of their star-studded backstory is filled in dribbles and humdrum, as if it’s exciting enough to deserve that much attention, but eventually we learn of a mutual infidelity caused by Carl’s fame.

"To paint"

“To paint”

©IFC Films/Courtesy Everett Collection

To boost ratings, Tony hires another painter to take Carl’s place, the younger and bolder Ambrosia (Ciara Renée). Where Carl was comfortable painting the same mountain every day, Ambrosia wows fans with her bold depictions of stumps, rocks and even… UFOs raining blood? She even catches Catherine’s eye with renewed energy, and eventually Carl’s rival at work becomes his rival in love. Carl evidently still nurtures his decades-old feelings for Catherine, despite hand-feeding fondue to his much younger production assistant at the local Cheesepot Depot. (McAdams seems to think throwing in the tidbit that they never have sex might look better. It doesn’t.)

But the inconsequential details of the feebly silly plot would be easier to ignore if the characters and understated tone were something funny in and of themselves. Carl is almost eerily subdued; one of the ongoing jokes in the film is that no one can ever tell when they are angry because he speaks so softly, no matter what.

That deep hum extends to the pitch of “Paint,” which whirls along at the snail’s pace of comedy. There’s a general vibe that maybe something a little weird is going on, but it’s buried beneath so many layers of mocking faux-quirky that it’s impossible to tell. With jokes from Vermont that read like the musings of someone who’s only spent the ski season and an embarrassingly half-baked attempt to critique sexism by writing a kindhearted womanizer, every stroke of “Paint” misses the mark. Bob Ross deserved better.

Grade: C-

IFC Films brings Paint to theaters on Friday, April 7th.

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