“Paint” is a deadpan comedy that takes its best shot at sending up the magic, the mellowness and the messiness of a PBS icon.
Mister Rogers was the only true rival to Bob Ross as a mainstay of early public broadcasting, legendary for his longevity as well as his soothing, unfussy on-camera demeanor as he was for the simple, instructive and almost meditative program he hosted, “The Joy of Painting.”
Brit McAdams, a writer and director for the gone and mostly-forgotten “Tosh.0” comedy series, takes the recent Bob Ross documentary that got into the “sex symbol” and “messiness” and cutthroat side of Ross’s life and legacy as his inspiration. McAdams keeps the guy’s bushy hair and beard and soft-spoken air, but changes his name to Carl Nargle and cast Owen Wilson as a small-time Ross, “star” of Vermont Public Broadcasting.
The comedy here comes from Carl’s unflappable air, the backwoods starpower that makes him catnip to generations via his show on a struggling PBS affiliate, and his “real world” appeal — to shut-ins, nursing home viewers and Vermont’s day-drinking barflies.
Wilson, sporting a blond O-fro, a collection of never-wear-out Western shirts and an ornate Hungarian pipe, plays Nargle as a man out of time and out of his TV era, someone who never changed or “evolved.” He’s an exaggerated Bob Ross. His house is a rustic cabin not redecorated since the early ’80s — save for the walls covered by generations of his bland landscapes — his TV an ancient cathode ray tube model, his phone rotary and his pick-up lines vintage.
He still asks women to go “to this spiritual place with me, the back of my (1980 vintage, pimped Chevy) van.”
And generations of them have, many of them (Michaela Watkins, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lusia Strus) still working for him at that cash-starved local PBS affiliate, where Tony (Stephen Root) presides but Carl’s former muse, the mild-mannered but lovesick Katherine (Watkins) really runs things.
Carl’s kept things in statis, and that includes his art, which has devolved into a never-ending series of versions of paintings of local Mount Mansfield. He has no ambition, no “spark” and no desire to expand his show to help save the station.
So Tony brings in brash young painter Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) to stir things up, financially, programmatically and sexually. Which she does, painting UFOs and many things which would never pass for landscapes, Carl’s one-painting-per-show specialty.
A lot of the humor here feeds off Wilson’s easygoing style. A slightly unhappy look from Carl has Tony whining “Why are you YELLING at me?” He plays Carl as an extension of Owen Wilson in a lot of his movies — the passive recipient of attention, the straight man letting everybody else bounce off him.
The comic possibilities remain mostly possibilities here, as a lot of funny people remind us that they’ve been funnier in most everything else they’ve ever done. Root dials it down too far to register, and Watkins is so quiet as to never find a laugh or make much an impression at all, an odd acting choice and one mimicked by others, suggesting it’s a stage direction from McAdams.
Only sitcom savvy McLendon-Covey really brings it.
The film has the rather dispirited air of a videotaped (not live) PBS fund drive, and not the first animated days of the drive either. It feels fatigued, almost from the start. There’s “deadpan” and there’s “six days past burying” deadpan, which is what McAdams managed here.
Wilson seems perfectly cast, but comes off as so mellow there’s barely anything comical to hang onto. A few flashes here and there tell us where this could have gone.
And some of the sight gags pay off — the first time we see them.
It’s like a Wes Anderson movie as attempted by Paul Thomas Anderson, or David O. Russell, “I Heart Huckabees” made about and ready for broadcast on PBS circa 1979. The whimsy isn’t missing. It’s just watered down. “Droll” remains just out of reach.
With “Paint,” as with that long-forgotten hair product of the era, Brylcream, “a little dab’ll do ya.”
Rating: PG-13 for sexual/suggestive material, drug use and smoking
Cast: Owen Wilson, Michaela Watkins, Ciara Renée, Wendi McLendon-Covey, Lucy Freyer, and Stephen Root.
Credits: Scripted and directed by Brit McAdams. An IFC release.
Running time: 1:36