Channel-surfing may be a nostalgic pastime these days, but those who experienced the mindless boredom of finding “nothing on TV” will probably recall the most compellingly boring show ever: “The Joy of Painting” with Bob Ross. With his signature curly brown afro and soothing voice, Ross was a fixture on PBS and of many a rainy afternoon. Though new episodes stopped airing in 1994, the late painter reached sustained notoriety through international reruns, Twitch streams, a Netflix deal, and a YouTube channel. In 2021, Netflix released a documentary about his life, “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.”
A new fictional film plays on Ross’ pop culture icon status without using his name or any particular details of his life, instead trading on his distinctive look and the public television painting show setting. Written and directed by Brit McAdams (“Tosh.0”), “Paint” stars Owen Wilson as Carl Nargle, a revered painter with a successful daytime show on a Vermont public access channel.
Saddling the character with a decidedly harder to pronounce name and a nasty habit of sleeping with every woman who works for him, McAdams presents a head-scratching and tone-deaf image of the beloved TV personality. With nary a plot point in sight besides a light rivalry and an old flame, Wilson must cling for dear life to the caricatured portrait of the hapless small town hero. Unfortunately, playing cartoonish versions of lovable goof have become Wilson’s bread and butter in recent years. Even the biggest of Wilson fans are sure to notice watching “Paint” is a lot like watching paint dry — except far less fun than Bob Ross made it.
“Paint” sets up Carl’s local celebrity status with a flurry of fawning women, who massage his painting hand and soothe his ego the second he finishes his live taping. His subject of choice of the day (and the last decade) is Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, which he distinguishes by painting in various seasons and at different times of day. McAdams quickly establishes Carl’s adoring audience in their various milieus: A group of rapt seniors at the nursing home, a single middle-aged woman who paints along, and even a few local barflies who find themselves unexpectedly mesmerized by Carl’s gentle brushstrokes.
McAdams makes sure at least three attendant women exist solely to fuss over Carl, wasting the comedic talents of Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lusia Strus, and Lucy Freyer. Station manager Tony (Stephen Root) is just as obsequious, but Catherine (Michaela Watkins) is distinctly more reserved. Through a series of clunky flashbacks, we learn that Catherine and Carl once had a passionate fling in the back of his van (dubbed “Vantastic”). The rest of their star-crossed backstory is filled out in drips and drabs, as if it were exciting enough to merit such close attention, but eventually we learn of some mutual infidelity brought on by Carl’s fame.
In an effort to boost ratings, Tony hires another painter to follow Carl’s slot, the younger and more daring Ambrosia (Ciara Renée). Where Carl has gotten comfortable painting the same mountain every day, Ambrosia excites fans with her bold depictions of stumps, rocks, and…UFOs raining blood? She even catches Catherine’s eye with fresh energy, and eventually Carl’s rival in work becomes his rival in love. Carl is obviously still nursing his decades-old feelings for Catherine, despite hand-feeding fondue to his much younger production assistant at the local Cheesepot Depot. (McAdams seems to think throwing in the tidbit that they never have sex might make this look better. It doesn’t.)
But the inconsequential minutiae of the thinly silly plot would be easier to ignore if the characters and understated tone amounted to anything funny on its own. Carl is almost eerily subdued; one of the running jokes in the film is that no one can ever tell when he’s mad because he speaks so softly no matter what.
This low hum tone extends to the pitch of “Paint,” which churns along at a snail’s pace of comedy. There’s an overall vibe that something kinda maybe a little bit funny is going on, but it’s buried beneath so many layers of mocking faux-quirkiness that it’s impossible to make out. With Vermont jokes that read like the musings of someone who’s only ever been for ski season, and the embarrassingly half-baked attempt to critique sexism by writing a kind-hearted womanizer, every stroke of “Paint” misses the mark. Bob Ross deserved better.
IFC Films will release “Paint” in theaters on Friday, April 7.