In my household, Bob Ross wasn’t just a painter on TV, but a way of life. When I was younger, my sister and I would both wile away countless hours of watching Ross calmly and splendidly paint vibrant landscapes, whilst wistfully narrating in a way only he could manage. Say what you will about the man himself—for my family, Ross’s technique left an indelible imprint. Paint presents itself as an indie dramedy for the arthouse crowd, promising to play well for those with a nostalgic admiration for Ross himself. For whatever the reason, be it high costs of rights or creative decisions, the filmmakers elected to portray an entirely fictionalized “public television painter” rather than a biopic or exposé about the far more interesting Bob Ross. Promotional materials that show Owen Wilson sporting that signature bushy-perm hairstyle or egregiously outdated open-collar shirt, nevertheless, left me excited to see what the creative team would manage to brush up. Watching paint dry would be more entertaining at times than the flat humor and lifeless quality of writing in Paint, even if Wilson’s performance tries hard to justify the film’s existence in the first place.
Paint with Carl Nargle is one of PBS Burlington’s top shows. In each episode, the skillful Carl (Wilson) creates a masterpiece that leaves audiences at home salivating and trying to imitate his calming strokes. Paint begins as Carl’s program seems to be at a crossroads; while he has built up a stable fanbase among those over the age of sixty-five, Carl’s star-power is fading. The ratings are not what they used to be. The network decides to bring in a fresh new face to emulate a similar style of paint-demonstration. Her name is Ambrosia (Ciara Renee), and she is about to give Carl a serious wake-up call.
I could tell what kind of humor they were going for here. A sort of Anchorman workplace comedy meets the quirky satire of Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story; unfortunately, the script from relative newcomer writer/director Brit McAdams leaves a lot to be desired. The initial setup feels quite fresh, though admittedly does lack major in the laughs department. Once Paint begins mentioning Shark Tank and Dancing with the Stars, it started to lose me. Why the decision to try to set this in modern day rather than play up the inherent silliness of the time period?
Bob Ross’ show, The Joy of Painting, aired from 1983 through 1994, a full decade brimming with comedic possibilities and societal issues. I laughed exactly one time; during a live contest to paint portraits between Carl and Ambrosia, Carl reveals his work to be none other than a landscape, the likes of which he has painted before. It is a rare home run that begs the question of why there are not more moments like this. At just over an hour and a half, Paint still feels needlessly long and drawn out due to the final act being so messy.
A painting that depicts a blood-drenched UFO being hung up in a prestigious museum is another idea that should have worked, yet has practically been imported from another movie entirely. How can so much be done right on a purely technical standpoint—such as Wilson’s performance and costuming, along with certain aspects that speak to an immaculate attention to detail—while others seem entirely half-baked? As a longtime Bob Ross fan, a movie exploring his kind-hearted nature, relationships, rise to fame, or even darker peaks behind the curtain such as his womanizing nature would have been welcomed with open arms. Instead, Paint tries to be an imitation of an imitation. Paint is the result of a very poor artist trying to emulate a stunning Bob Ross painting: shameful, occasionally funny, and mostly just mismanaged.
Paint tenderly strokes color from the tip of its brush in theaters on Friday, April 7th. It will stream exclusively on AMC+ later this year.