Paint Review: Owen Wilson Does a Riff on Bob Ross, the Kitsch Icon of PBS, in an Amusing, Undercooked Satire of Toxic Male Delusion

Carl Nargle (Owen Wilson), the amusingly ironic hero of “Paint” (ironic because, as we discover, he’s about as far from heroic as you can get), hosts a one-man instructional painting show that gets broadcast live out of the PBS station in Burlington, Vermont. Each afternoon, Carl appears on camera for one hour, puffing on his pipe, holding his brushes and palette as he dashes off an oil painting of a local wilderness setting (snowy mountains, twilight vistas, trees), explaining all the while, in the unruffled monotone of a stoned hypnotist, how you too can get to a “special place” just by painting what’s in your heart.

Carl himself seems nearly as much of an art object as his canvases of Mt. Mansfield, the Vermont peak he has begun to paint with OCD frequency. He wears the same denim Western shirts, fuzzy beard and ash-blond Afro that he’s been sporting since 1979. He’s a relic: the landscape painter as Fred Rogers for adults, a kind of soft-rock guru from the age when men were Mellow. The biggest TV celebrity in Burlington, he thinks he’s on top of the world, but he’s about to come tumbling down.

Any resemblance between Carl Nargle and Bob Ross, the real-life PBS host of “The Joy of Painting” (Ross died in 1995, after 11 years of his famously staid broadcasts), is, of course, anything but coincidental. Yet “Paint,” as closely as it hews to the pop-culture image of Ross as a becalmed kitsch Buddha of yes-you-should-try-this-at-home landscapes, isn’t a thinly veiled Bob Ross biopic. The movie, written and directed by Brit McAdams (it’s his first feature), takes off from Ross’s image but uses it as the springboard for a fanciful satire of clueless male duplicity and folly. It’s like a Will Ferrell comedy told in slow motion — think “Anchorman” minus the surrealism, with a more deadpan sense of the absurd.

Carl treats the world as a perfect place, but that’s because he comes from a place of megalomaniacal privilege. Beneath his ridiculous ’70s sensitive-guy façade, he’s a smooth operator who treats the PBS staff like vassals, notably Katherine (Michaela Watkins), the station manager he loved and abandoned. He sleeps with every woman he can, taking them to the local fondue restaurant and getting them into the sofa bed in back of his hippie van. He’s so arrogantly tech-resistant he doesn’t know what an Uber is and refuses to heed the “answering machine” inside a cell phone (he points out that people used to take the messages for you). And he spends his spare time brooding over the fact that he has never had a painting placed in the Burlington Museum of Art. (He doesn’t seem to realize that he’s a celebrity because he turns “art” into a glorified version of paint-by-numbers.)

For all that, Carl’s ratings are sinking, and when Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), a next-generation painter, is given a PBS show to air right after his, it’s a sign that his era has passed, something that everyone seems to know except for Carl. In its dry deliberate way, “Paint” skewers something all too real: a certain kind of toxic self-deluding male myopia. For a while, it serves up a droll tweak of the era when men could just assume that they ruled, though the film is also a bit labored. A feature-length comedy sketch played straight doesn’t have much mystery to reveal, and those who will be drawn to seeing “Paint” might have welcomed a less acidic, more sincere Bob Ross riff, the kind you almost might have expected to see from the screenwriters of “Ed Wood” and “Big Eyes.”

The movie tracks Carl’s descent, his crack-up, and his slow waking up to reality. Owen Wilson, elevating his familiar purr into a delectable murmur, plays all this in a kind of pitch-perfect daze, though it’s not exactly a varied performance. (Ferrell would have made room for more of Carl’s inner rage.) The movie strikes its principal note too many times, though if you’re a Bob Ross person it can be a savory note. By the end, “Paint” has definitively skewered Carl’s “special place.” Yet the film should have spent a little more time actually believing that it was special.

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