PAINT Delivers a Funny and Heartfelt Work of Art

There will be some who see Paint‘s trailer and dismiss it as a silly little movie. I don’t blame them. It stars Owen Wilson in a ridiculous wig playing a cartoonish version of The Joy of Painting‘s Bob Ross. That premise seems intentionally pretty silly. If you’re one of those people, though, I’m here to tell you Paint is so much better than it might seem on the surface. Its ability to combine broad humor with quiet quirkiness and a tremendous cast makes for a funny, entertaining film. But what makes it truly worthy of your time is its intimate story about regret, how we each think about success and failure, and what defines “real” art. And that all works specifically because Paint stars Owen Wilson in a ridiculous wig playing a cartoonish version of Bob Ross.

Paint‘s official synopsis gives you everything you need to know about its general plot. From IFC Films:

Owen Wilson stars as Carl Nargle, Vermont’s #1 public TV painter who is convinced he has it all: a signature perm, custom van, and fans hanging on his every stroke… until a younger, better artist steals everything (and everyone) Carl loves.

That younger artist is Ciara Renée’s Ambrosia Long. She’s secretly conniving, extremely talented, a total threat to everything Carl has created, and yet wholly likable. That’s true of everyone in this cast, which despite its primary focus on its lead still feels like a great ensemble piece. That’s because writer-director Brit McAdams does a great job making sure every actor knows exactly what movie they are in. They’re all operating on the same weird frequency, which is akin to a Christopher Guest mockumentary in tone and delivery. The people whose lives revolve around both Carl Nargle and Burlington, Vermont’s public access station don’t have any idea how absurd everything they do really is, so they do it all with sincerity. Anything less would fall flat and undermine why this movie works.

A young Black woman in a yellow coat stands in a parking lot in Paint
IFC Films

That sincerity is why even the film’s broadest gags—like when the soft-spoken, seemingly emotionally distant Carl speeds from one single house to another on a densely populated street—really land. It’s totally ridiculous and inherently hilarious while still feeling like a legitimate thing that would happen in this tiny world. It’s a world where a local access painter/lothario who basically makes the same painting every day can bring an entire community to “a special place” every afternoon. Everyone really loves Carl, even his ex-girlfriends.

Those exes include Wendi McLendon-Covey and Lusia Strus, who steal every scene they’re in. No surprise Stephen Root, who Carl’s boss, is also stellar just like he always is. As is Lucy Freyer, who plays Carl’s new love interest who has to learn what everyone else seems to know about him.

Four people stand over monitors while a fifth sits in the middle in Paint
IFC Films

But the heart of this movie belongs to the criminally underrrated Michaela Watkins (the station’s assistant manager Katherine) and Wilson’s Carl. They had once been in love, but that relationship ended for reasons that aren’t immediately obvious. What is obvious is that it left both of them damaged and stuck working together. As the film slowly pulls back the layers of their history together it slowly unveils a story that is far more heartbreaking and complex than you’ll expect. And each actors’ quiet, understated performance only adds to the sadness that surrounds them. All of that unspoken pain, which is present even during their funniest moments, gives Paint a depth its trailers and synopsis can’t possibly convey.

Its themes of regret and lost love isn’t the limit of the film’s depth, though. It’s also a treatise on what defines “real” art and artists. And this is the true genius of the film’s script and the casting of Wilson. Bob Ross might be a beloved figure who was excellent at what he did, but few would probably describe him as a truly great painter. But Paint poses an important question about that general idea: “Isn’t the separation and gatekeeping of “real” art bullshit?”

Owen Wilson's Carl Nargle looks sad in his van in Paint
IFC Films

Sure, Carl Nargle/Bob Ross painted the same type of thing day after day on a little TV show. But the way an artist and his show made people feel was/is real. Isn’t that what art is really about? Making someone feel something? Connecting with others via your medium?

That’s why Wilson is a perfect choice for this exact role. His Carl desperately wants to be accepted as a real artist. He yearns for the same kind of recognition every creative person does. And it’s easy to see how Wilson’s own standing in Hollywood both reflects and informs his outstanding performance. All of the connotations that come with casting him—someone known primarily as a comedic actor who excels in broad and/or quirky roles and not much more—add to the film’s themes. He’s playing a Bob Ross figure, yes. But Owen Wilson is also a real-life avatar for the character. His presence helps highlight the film’s question about the purpose and meaning of art. That adds layers to everything you’re seeing, as though the real person and the character are in conversation with one another, each searching for the same thing. And each deserving it.

Michaela Watkins wears a cardigan and holds folders in Paint
IFC Films

Paint isn’t perfect and not everyone will vibe with it. (These types of off-kilter movies will never be for everyone.) There are also a few moments when it feels like it veers a little too far from its general tone. A few spots get too silly. And while it’s consistently funny throughout, there are sequences that rely too much on its cast’s performance than the scripts inherent humor.

But on the whole it really worked for me. And not only do its strengths far outweigh its few issues, I thought about Paint for days after I saw it.. It lived in my brain the way only truly interesting stories with something to actually say can.

Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle stands at the front of a classroom with a blank canvas in Paint
IFC Films

This is a well-paced, tightly told, beautiful little movie full of humor, heart, and a point-of-view. It treats its characters with respect even when they’re at their most absurd. That includes both the real painter who inspired its main character and the actor who plays him.

Turns out putting Owen Wilson in a ridiculous wig as cartoonish version of Bob Ross was exactly the point of Paint. But, fittingly, the “point” is a far more interesting work of art than you might expect.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at   @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.

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