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Paint Review: There Are No Happy Trees Here

  • The cast does a good job bringing their characters to life
  • There are many funny moments
  • Wilson doesn't actually satirize Bob Ross
  • The stakes are depressingly low

Written and directed by Brit McAdams, "Paint" takes us to a special place — according to Carl Nargle (Owen Wilson), at least. We're given an insider's view into Carl's art-centric PBS show, aptly titled "Paint." Then, we watch as he lords it over everyone around him in the nicest and most polite possible way. He can paint adequately, and he's on TV: That's enough for his co-workers, nursing home fans, drunks at the bar, and various other hangers-on to treat him like a celebrity. But when Carl refuses a second hour for his show and sees it given to Ambrosia (Ciara Renee), a younger painter with real talent, things get complicated. Ambrosia may not have Carl's ASMR voice, but she can paint with real creativity — more than landscapes, even! — and turns out two paintings in a single hour. Soon, Ambrosia attracts legions of fans that Carl, who's been at the job for 20 years, couldn't dream of.

Sadly, this set-up is unlikely to be enough to capture your imagination. That's because the biggest reason we're interested in Carl Nargle is that he reminds us of Bob Ross, what with his head full of luscious curls and his tendency to paint landscapes. But Carl Nagle is most assuredly not Bob Ross, and the fact that he's copied Ross' look isn't enough to make him, or his movie, all that interesting. That's not for lack of trying: Wilson does his best as the main character. But "Paint" simply doesn't know what to do with him. Ultimately, the script just doesn't have enough edge or imagination to go to some of the meaner places it needs to explore. Wilson and the rest of the talented cast do their best, but it's all in service of a plot with no teeth.

Wilson's work is squandered

As "Paint" unfolds, Ambrosia turns out to be a trigger for many of the movie's larger issues. Carl has been a low-key predator at the station for most of his time there. He's worked his way through his behind-the-scenes staff, and now he's dating the youngest of them, Jenna (Lucy Freyer). All of this masks the fact that he still yearns for Katherine (Michaela Watkins), the girlfriend he dumped 20 years ago after she cheated on him with a Vermont Mountain Express package deliverer. Complicating this is the fact that she still works as the PBS station's assistant general manager. 

Ambrosia's presence gives Carl's co-workers perspective, and soon, they become far less forgiving of him. Carl seemingly loses everything, but this is done in such a low-key way that it's hard to feel too worried for him. Wilson tries his best, but Carl is a sketch of a character: The story just doesn't give him enough to do to really make him multidimensional. While the plot hints at interesting directions, it doesn't actually explore them, leaving multiple narrative threads and story elements dangling. This is especially true of the predator plotline. If "Paint" had any real gumption, it might have had something interesting to say about celebrity, what women put up with, and the ways powerful men take advantage. Instead, the predator story barely gets off the ground before it's dropped.

All of the film's storylines fizzle out this way — except Carl and Katherine's. But even then, we're never given the opportunity to truly understand why these two like each other. "Paint" simply assures us that they do, and hopes we take that information at face value, even though the characters have no real chemistry. All in all, the lack of desire to give him any real adversity to deal with robs Carl and the film of any stakes.

Some funny moments

"Paint" isn't a total disaster. Some moments are very funny, and these are plentiful enough to almost save the movie. Wilson often makes these moments work despite their flaws: Scenes in which vegan Jenna tries cheese-covered meat at The Cheesepot Depot, newspapers along a rural block are inelegantly stolen, and a couple breaks up over CB radio all land because of the actor's work. The other characters don't lack for laughs either. Stephen Root and Wendi McLendon-Covey's characters have some particularly hilarious moments, as do lesser figures, including the barber Carl goes to for his fabulous hair. This keeps things humming along even when the plot is less than the sum of its parts.

These humorous instances are the reason why anyone sticks with "Paint." That's both good and bad. On the one hand, these moments make the movie work in a way that it wouldn't otherwise. On the other hand, they show what could have been possible, had the plot been fully in on the joke. The script includes some good quips and witty payoffs, but it doesn't quite seem to know what to do with the movie as a whole — and ultimately, that dooms it. "Paint" is occasionally hysterical, but why would you bother to watch a movie with funny moments when you could watch one with funny moments and a hilarious plot? One wonders what could have been if "Paint" had serious bite and real stakes. Unfortunately, we'll never know.

"Paint" opens in theaters on Friday, April 7.