There are so many things wrong in the new indie comedy PAINT, it’s difficult to know where to begin. Ostensibly a parody of famed PBS how-to host Bob Ross, the film not only maligns the much-beloved artist, but it fails as a satire of his painting, the backdrop of public television, and the appeal he had to his audience. Worst of all, it portrays the Ross stand-in here, named Carl Nargle and played by Owen Wilson, as a swinging d**k Lothario, a sex hound so relentless that he sleeps with almost every woman he works with in his small production unit. Ultimately, the film seems to be trying for some sort of #MeToo statement, but it’s too meandering and lazy to play as the cutting social satire it would need to be to achieve that goal.
For those unfamiliar with Ross, all of this riffing will likely seem unfathomable. The truth is that Bob Ross was a wildly successful and skilled landscape artist who hosted a painting show for PBS from 1983 to 1994 entitled THE JOY OF PAINTING. He died at just 52 from lymphoma, but his legacy lived on in constant reruns and repurposing of his shows all over the Internet. Arguably, he became even bigger after his death. Known for his permed hair (to save money on haircuts when he was young) and soft-spoken voice (a counter to his years of yelling in the armed services), Ross was a genuinely sweet and well-intentioned man. He was also talented and devoted to teaching audiences to express themselves artistically. Ross talked the talk and walked the walk, teaching hundreds of classes throughout the nation when he wasn’t shooting his show.
So, why the thinly-veiled hatchet job here? PAINT seems to revel in twisting all of Ross’ attributes into a takedown of him, all but indicting the dead celebrity as a poseur on every level. Written and directed by Britt McAdams, the film is simply too on-the-nose riffing on Ross’ voice, hairdo, and speedy painting style to be seen as fiction. And yet, in other places, his parody is so off the mark, it suggests that the filmmaker doesn’t truly understand that which he’s attempting to lampoon. McAdams portrays Nargle’s show as always being recorded live, something that such shows would never do. He also portrays Nargle’s painting prowess as barely that of an eighth grader, which is insulting. Perhaps Ross’ style was too defined by technique, but his works looked professional. Here, Nargle’s work doesn’t even pass muster as that of an inspired amateur.
McAdams’ plotting itself isn’t particularly inspired either. Nargle beds everyone he works with, including his head producer Katherine (Michaela Watkins), the show’s production assistant Wendy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), and intern Jenna (Lucy Freyer). As if that’s not cliché enough in films about artists, Nargle experiences an all-too-obvious mid-life crisis when a new painter named Ambrosia (Ciara Renee) shows up on the scene and is instantly given her own painting show at Nargle’s Vermont station.
Perhaps if Blake Edwards was still around, the famed director of VICTOR/VICTORIA and the PINK PANTHER series could have turned this material into a slapstick farce. One can imagine the slamming door set-piece with Nargle trying to juggle all his affairs simultaneously. But McAdams isn’t clever enough here to know how to choreograph his players in such rich, comical ways. His material is so adrift that even Stephen Root, one of cinema’s funniest and most versatile character actors, can’t make sense of his harried station manager character. He’s got a big supporting part and yet isn’t given one truly worthy line in the whole 96-minute run time.
Wilson tries to make sense of Nargle, but the script can’t decide if the protagonist is a naif or a con man. The script has Nargle muttering all kinds of colloquialisms, including his catchphrase “Thanks for going to a special place with me,” but none of such utterances sound like anything more than weak come-ons in a singles bar. Wilson and Ross deserve much, much better.
If McAdams wanted to parody small-town TV stations, or the rabid followings that turn such local celebrities into cult figures, he might have had a timely and pointed satire. Instead, PAINT seems content in mocking Ross without ever understanding his world or why he was so appealing to so many. And in doing so, McAdams has made a film lacking in both laughs and a worthy point of view. Of all the types the filmmaker could take down, why nice guy Bob Ross?