Review: Though Enjoyable to Look At, Paint Is a Comedy With Too Subtle Brush Strokes

Lest you think that the new Owen Wilson-starring film Paint is some veiled biopic of public television superstar Bob Ross, let me assure you that any similarities between Wilson’s Carl Nargle and Ross are in appearance only. In fact, Nargle is Vermont’s Number One television painter, and his mountainous landscape works have been the object of fascination amongst viewers for decades. His televised, hour-long painting sessions are almost like meditation, as Carl softly, soothingly talks his way through each work. As a result, his ratings are high and he has a sex appeal amongst a certain portion of his audience to match, even among those who work with him at the PBS affiliate.

Over the years, he’s worked his way through many of the female staff at the station, beginning with producer Katherine (Michaela Watkins), whom we suspect might be his true love, but she cheated on him one time, and he never forgave her. They still manage to work together respectfully, but the tension is there. Others in the office include Wendy (Wendi McLendon-Covey), Beverly (Lusia Strus), and new potential love interest Jenna (Lucy Freyer), whom Carl introduces to the wonders of his customized van, Vantastic. 

Since the painting segments are the most popular part of the show, station head Tony (Stephen Root) has been tasked with upping the number of hours for Carl’s show, “Paint.” When Carl refuses to do an extra show per day, Tony hires younger artist Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), who is somehow capable of producing two paintings per hour. Her output and sparkling personality win over the Vermont audience almost immediately, giving Carl his first real taste of competition on his own show. The fact that Ambrosia and Katherine hit it off instantly doesn’t help things in the eyes of the usually chill Carl, either.

Written and directed by first-time filmmaker Brit McAdams (a frequent director of the “Tosh.0” show), Paint functions best as an absurd comedy, with Wilson in a silly blonde afro-perm wig, playing out the last days of a womanizing hippie who has seen his hypnotic art show lose its hold on the public. As most artists do, Carl craves to have his paintings (consisting primarily of various views of the same mountain) be accepted as real art, and he obsesses over having his work hang in the local art museum, curated by Dr. Bradford Lenihan (Michael Pemberton). Carl has spent his entire career assuming Lenihan would reject his work, so he’d never even inquired about having a showing at the museum. But when the world at large (or at least in Vermont) starts responding to Ambrosia’s slightly odd paintings (each of a different subject, if you can believe it), Carl realizes his career has been very limiting.

The issues with Paint stem from the execution being so subtle sometimes that it’s easy to miss the humor entirely. Wilson expresses Carl’s insecurities so perfectly even before Ambrosia arrives on the scene that when he comes face to face with the threat of an actual, more talented artist who seems to be stealing his entire life away from him, he can’t hide behind his chill, collected persona any longer and has actual reactions. I’m not really sure I understand what the point of this film is beyond watching a person take stock of what truly matters to him and finally express emotions and passion where once there was a certain stoicism, but that’s not an entirely fulfilling journey, at least not the way the filmmaker lets it play out. I certainly love this cast, and they do their best with the somewhat underwritten material, but like Carl’s paintings, I need something more substantive to really appreciate it.

The film is now playing in theaters.

Did you enjoy this post? Please consider supporting Third Coast Review’s arts and culture coverage by making a donation. Choose the amount that works best for you, and know how much we appreciate your support! 

Steve Prokopy
Steve Prokopy

Steve Prokopy is chief film critic for the Chicago-based arts outlet
Third Coast Review. For nearly 20 years, he was the Chicago editor for
Ain’t It Cool News, where he contributed film reviews and
filmmaker/actor interviews under the name “Capone.” Currently, he’s a
frequent contributor at /Film ( and Backstory Magazine.
He is also the public relations director for Chicago's independently
owned Music Box Theatre, and holds the position of Vice President for
the Chicago Film Critics Association. In addition, he is a programmer
for the Chicago Critics Film Festival, which has been one of the
city's most anticipated festivals since 2013.