PAINT Review: A Bob Ross Biopic This Ain't

Owen Wilson stars; Brit McAdams wrote and directed the comedy-drama.

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
PAINT Review: A Bob Ross Biopic This Ain't

Between the mid-‘80s and the mid-90s, PBS viewers in the U.S. could tune in almost any afternoon to catch a master, Bob Ross, at work.

A landscape painter of modest talents, a calm, gentle demeanor, and a taste for a perpetually permed afro, off-the-rack clothing, and a messy, well-used easel, spending a half-hour with Ross was less about the knowledge of art and painting and more about the calming break from reality that Ross and his endeavors imparted to the viewers on the other side of the big-box TV. Ross passed away prematurely at the age of 52 from cancer, but his surprisingly multi-faceted legacy lives on via occasional re-broadcasts of his show, YouTube clips, and, of course, a branded business owned and operated by his successors.

Given Ross’s contributions to pop culture, a biopic seemed inevitable. Writer-director Brit McAdams feature-length debut, Paint, certainly isn’t it.

Borrowing surface-deep elements from Ross’ persona (hair, clothes, style), and his dedication to landscape painting, Paint creates an analog of sorts in Carl Nagle (Owen Wilson, in perpetually laid-back, stoner mode), the current host of the No. 1 show on Vermont public television. The year might be this year or last, but Nagle still stubbornly lives in the past, preferring all things analog, including a groovy 70s van, to living in the modern world.

That Nagle’s badly out-of-step with the times provides Paint with the odd jab of humor, mostly at Nagle’s confused expense. While he lives in a bubble of his own making, surrounded by a staff filled with ex-lovers, including onetime partner Katherine (Michaela Watkins) and his soon-to-be-current, age-inappropriate girlfriend, Jenna (Lucy Freyer), he can’t imagine anything — or anyone — different shaking up his world, at least not in the way the station’s latest hire, Ambrosia (Ciara Renee), a painter with peculiar tastes, does.

In her youth, gender, and attitude, Ambrosia represents everything Nargle isn’t. She also represents the quickening footsteps of his own mortality and the crucial question every artist eventually faces: Whether anything Nargle did or does matters.  

Paint’s light, semi-comedic approach gradually gives way to something darker and gnarlier and ultimately, humor-free. Brought onboard by the station manager, Tony (Stephen Root), ostensibly to fill in an afternoon gap in programming, Ambrosia and her half-hour program, modeled on Nargle’s own, proves to be a hit, first on Nargle’s level, and later surpassing his show in terms of viewers and local cultural cachet.

Almost immediately, resentment begins to undermine Nargle’s usually placid head space. Much is made of Nargle’s inability to raise his voice above a stage whisper even when, given the circumstances, he’s expected to express anger. Everyone gets replaced eventually — mortality again — but Nargle seems constitutionally unsuited to handle the inevitable decline of his career as a painter and/or public TV host, let alone the shedding of his mortal form.

An oddball, off-kilter film that repeatedly skirts multiple genres without settling on one (likewise, tone), Paint ultimately devolves into a frustrating experience, becoming more unfocused and meandering as it approaches the limits of its man-out-of-time premise. Broadly parodying Ross and his mannerisms, Wilson makes for a more than serviceable protagonist facing end-of-career and possibly end-of-life challenges, though too often it feels like he’s working too hard to elevate scattershot, faux-meaningful material. The same applies to a uniformly talented cast giving their next-level all in support of Wilson’s idiosyncratic star turn.

That Bob Ross biopic everyone was expecting or hoping to see when the studio released the first pics of Wilson as Nargle on social media? It’ll have to wait.

How long, however, is anyone’s guess. Until then, Paint will prove a poor substitute, a biopic from an alternate reality not much better than ours, but also not much worse.

Paint opens today (Friday, April 7), in North American movie theaters via IFC Films. Visit their official site for more information. 

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Brit McAdamsCiara ReneeLucy FreyerMichaela WatkinsOwen WilsonPaintStephen RootWendi McLendon-Covey

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