There’s a fascinating double-bill to be had with Weird: The Al Yankovic Story and Paint. All we need is for someone to actually release the first of the two in the UK so that we can organise a screening for some mates.
Both films centre on an afro’d protagonist who is, quite clearly, intended to be a real-life figure. But both are incredibly liberal with the truth, to the point that ‘biography’ begins to lose any meaning. Weird: The Al Yankovic Story is a bucket of lies concocted by Weird Al, while Paint is very clearly about Bob Ross – you only need to see one still of Owen Wilson to work that out – but changes the name to Carl Nager and gives him a pipe, as a kind of distraction tactic. Neither of them have even a smidgeon of truth about them.
Flagrant lies makes perfect sense for Weird: The Al Yankovic Story. Weird Al is a persona who has made a living from stealing and sending up other people’s work. It’s the natural next step that the biopic would do the same. But Paint and Bob Ross? It’s hard to pinpoint what’s going on here. Why are we getting a movie that imagines a twin for Bob Ross, and then deconstructs what it must be like to be that kind of person? It’s a complicated question that Paint entirely fails to answer.
Paint kicks off with Carl Nager (Owen Wilson, finding a natural vehicle for his chilled drawl) painting a landscape live on telly. Nothing is scripted, so he meditates on the fly about the blackberry bushes he is painting, giving them a personality and telling a story as he dabs. Much like Bob Ross’s shows, Carl’s show is half painting lesson and half ASMR video. An important note for later is that Mount Mansfield is the backdrop for the painting. Then the credits roll.
Carl is greeted offstage by a harem of female producers and runners, and it soon becomes clear that he’s bedding them all. They’re on a kind of rota, and he leads them into his yellow van where sexual euphemisms about paintbrushes await. There’s clearly a Cult of Carl at play, and they’re all taken in by his relaxed charm.
But things don’t stay this way for long, as an ingenue is brought in in the form of Ambrosia. She takes the slot directly after Carl, and delivers a more modern take on his painting program. In the film’s best moment, she paints a UFO dripping blood on a tree stump because ‘it’s the exact opposite of what Carl does’. We get to see the fall of Carl as Ambrosia’s show overtakes his, making him redundant both figuratively and literally. The Cult of Carl disbands and reforms around Ambrosia.
Carl can’t keep up because he’s a stuck record. In a cheeky reference to Bob Ross, his paintings are all landscapes with Mount Mansfield looming above. Some kind of mental block stops him from producing anything different, leaving a wide open door for Ambrosia to glide through.
Perhaps it’s the presence of Owen Wilson, but our first thought was that Paint was reaching for the stylistic charms of Wes Anderson. There are wide-lens shots of museums and other buildings, framed exactly in the middle of the screen, that have been Wes Anderson’s calling card for some time now. The comedy comes from two dysfunctional people in conversation who barely speak each other’s language, as they have such wildly different world views. That’s a Wes Anderson thing too.
But if that was the aim, then Paint is such a diluted version of his films that it’s hard to see the original pigment. This is a chuckle-less, misguided movie that will make you wonder what the original point must have been.
Our biggest problem with Paint was how much it hates its own characters. We apologise for referencing Wes Anderson again here, as the comparison could become too laboured, but his characters are always appealing even when they’re monsters. But the writers and directors of Paint can’t find that appeal in anyone. We think we’re meant to like Carl, but he mistreats his groupies, he’s so self-centred that he can’t see the points that other people are trying to make, and he stubbornly won’t paint anything that isn’t Mount Mansfield.
The writers then use him as a punchbag, doling out punishments that are justified but not all that fun to watch. As he loses everything, we wondered what we were meant to feel. Empathy? Justice? Is it meant to be funny or insightful? Of course a painter who paints a single scene is going to get shuffled off to a retirement home. The question is why didn’t it happen sooner?
The point that is being made is undoubtedly that progress demands change. To break out of a world-view, you have to see more than Mount Mansfield. But you can see this message arriving in the first few scenes, and Paint has the subtlety of a paint-roller in applying that message.
Which brings things back to Bob Ross. Paint is such a damning portrait of Carl Nargle that Bob becomes an afro’d elephant in the room. Is it meant to be a character assassination of Bob and his work? We found it distracting that Paint was so clearly about and not about Bob Ross, that we found our minds wafting over to what the Ross estate must think about the movie. It must be one big eye-roll for them.
If there was a thick vein of humour, or some witty observations about its characters, then the time would at least have flown by. But we found everyone mostly unbelievable, outside of the terrific Michaela Watkins who plays Carl’s most long-term partner, Katherine. They’re caricatures who can’t see themselves, and none of them feel like real people. The result is that the humour fails to raise even a wry smile.
Paint has such little respect for its characters that it becomes a hard watch. It loves to set up its cast of narcissists and then knock them down like ten-pins. It’s not finely observed enough to make that clever or funny, and we ended up tutting and spacing out in much the same way as Carl Nager’s audience does. We’d advise that you catch some Bob Ross reruns instead.