Producers: Peter Brant and Sam Maydew Director: Brit McAdams Screenplay: Brit McAdams Cast: Owen Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Ciara Renée, Lusia Strus, Stephen Root, Lucy Frewer, Elisabeth Henry, Michael Pemberton, Lynda Suarez, Ryan Czerwonko and Aidan T.K. Baker Distributor: IFC Films
There’s a thin line between droll and dopey, and “Paint” falls on the wrong side of it. A tale of a misogynist boob set in a weirdly timeless world and told in utterly deadpan style, it stars Owen Wilson as a long-time fixture at a struggling PBS station confronted by the collapse of his TV career and challenges to his outdated lifestyle. But the character isn’t treated with any kind of asperity; he’s portrayed as a bumbling nitwit rather than a crass throwback. The film is presumably intended as some sort of satire, but if so it’s the kind with the sharpness of a butter knife rather than a scalpel or meat cleaver.
Wilson’s Carl Nargle is patterned, physically at least, after Bob Ross, whose soothingly vacuous program “The Joy of Painting” was a PBS staple from 1983 to 1994 and then in reruns. Nargle has Ross’s poofy hairstyle, comfy retrograde country clothes, drowsy manner and propensity to drop penny-ante “deep” aphorisms, but otherwise the likeness is pretty superficial. While Ross enjoyed a national audience, Nargle’s is limited to the signal range of the Burlington, Vermont, station where he’s been based for more than twenty years. Though his work has come to consist of little more than a succession of mediocre paintings of Mount Mansfield, the state’s highest, versions of which he produces on the show over and over again, he retains some loyal fans, mostly elderly nursing home residents like wheelchair-bound Bridget (Elisabeth Henry) and barflies who never appear to leave their stools (Ryan Czerwonko and Aidan T.K. Baker).
Though station manager Tony (Stephen Root) is frantic over declining ratings and revenue shortfalls, Carl maintains a prima donna attitude beneath his ostensibly mellow persona, expecting everyone to cater to his expectations. And despite his anachronistic hippie persona, somehow he remains a chick magnet, to use a phrase he might recognize, trapped in a 1970s time warp as he is (though the time of the story isn’t specified, cellphones are in use, one can call an Uber, and there are other vaguely contemporary references, though the station itself looks like an operation that couldn’t be much later than 1990, and digitally removing the pipe from Carl’s old show tapes is treated like a miracle). He’s said to have had affairs with all the women at the station, including hard-bitten writer Beverly (Lusia Strus) and producer Wendy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), whom, along with other women, he’s treated to sessions on the sofa in the back of his vintage van, which he calls the Vantastic. His current assistant Jenna (Lucy Frewer) is besotted with him and anxious to join them.
But Carl is still carrying a torch for Katherine (Michaela Watkins), the assistant station manager, with whom he had a romance long ago until she cheated on him. Though she’s remained at the station since the breakup, she’s now contemplating leaving Burlington for a job in Albany. She also conspires with Tony to try to raise the station’s ratings, first by suggesting to Carl that they double the length of his show (a scheme that hardly seems likely to achieve that aim), and then by scheduling another painting show with Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), a brash, cutting-edge type, to follow his. She quickly comes to overshadow him; not only that, she takes up with Katherine. Ultimately Carl is forced off air entirely, sent to teaching a university course in which the students prove so uninterested in him that they drop out one by one.
But in its limp fashion, “Paint” can’t resist redeeming Nargle, explaining his “professional” decline as stemming from his long-unfulfilled desire to have one of his paintings exhibited in the local museum overseen by brusque Dr. Lenihan (Michael Pemberton). He reconciles himself to his own limitations as an artist, and reconciles as well with Katherine, who apparently has been carrying a torch for him, too.
“Paint” has some fun with obvious targets—there’s a pledge drive sequence that takes aim at one of PBS’s most notorious practices, for example, and a bit about how the work of artists increases in value after they die (while enhancing the public appreciation of the most mediocre among them). But even in these McAdams’ writing is flat, and his direction of them flatter. That’s characteristic of the whole movie, which isn’t just slow but flaccid.
That’s due in some measure to Wilson’s performance, which is so laid-back and hesitant that at times Nargle seems nearly comatose. Root, Strus and Renée inject some energy into the proceedings, but since there’s little consistency (or likability) to their characters—a capper involving Ambrosia and Beverly is especially odd—their efforts reek of desperation rather than commitment to the material. As for the others, the waste of Watkins is especially disheartening.
“Paint” is set in Vermont but was shot in New York—perhaps understandable, given its rather unflattering portrait of the denizens of the Green Mountain State’s largest city. It’s not unattractive visually, with decent work from production designer Todd Jeffery, costumer Allison Pearce and cinematographer Patrick Cady. The pacing is inordinately slow, but that seems due more to McAdams’ choices than editor Sofi Marshall’s. Lyle Workman’s score is, appropriately, more workmanlike than inspired, though the pop songs of the 1970s that periodically pop up add a vibe that fits Nargle’s hippie persona.
McAdams’ script was, incidentally, included on the 2010 Black List of promising screenplays. Now actually made by the writer himself, it provides another instance of the predictive fallibility of that tool.