Though the first half hour of Brit McAdams’s Paint flows about as fast as maple syrup in January, it’s worth enduring the long, slow drip as the buckets of this sappy, laid-back film inexorably fill with sweetness. Perhaps “bittersweetness” is a more appropriate term, for Paint depicts—albeit with a muted color palette—the saga of one Carl Nargle, a fiftysomething Vermont artist long past his prime, played competently by Owen Wilson. (Nargle’s fictionalized character is based on the real-life Bob Ross, whose Joy of Painting show ran on PBS back in the 1990s.)
I must admit I was about to sink into deep hibernation until shaken awake by several comedic irruptions around the half-hour mark. First, there’s the poignantly hilarious scene where Nargle drives his battered van through the streets of Burlington, Vermont to steal newspapers from mailboxes so subscribers will not read of his dismissal from the how-to-paint show he’d hosted for decades on the local PBS channel, much to the displeasure of his dwindling, nursing-home audiences. Second, there’s the rollicking depiction of the channel’s annual fund-raising art auction, a pointed satire on how art has become the handmaiden of TV ratings and revenue. Both these priceless scenes belong in the opening minutes of the film, where they might have signalled to attention-challenged viewers like myself that it’s worth sticking it out till the sap runneth over.
Paint is thus one of those charming sleepers that leaves a pleasant taste in your mouth once you’ve stuck it out till the final credits scroll by. Ultimately, you realize that you’ve come to love the perfectly imperfect Carl Nargle. You’ve come to identify with this fellow mortal who has—like yourself—postponed creating his masterpiece out of fear and timidity. You’ve come to empathize with this Everyperson who is instead content with cranking out mediocre paintings day after day after day until he’s amassed some four thousand manneristic depictions of a bucolic Vermont landscape—all while engaging in a long series of failed romances. Carl Nargle seems the perfect poster child for that stereotypical definition of insanity as doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results.
Things begin to fall apart when Nargle loses his job at the TV station, replaced by a perky twentysomething woman named Ambrosia—I hesitate to dwell on her name’s obvious references to both “sap” and “sapphism.” Then Nargle gets booted from his gig teaching painting at the local university, stung by his students’ preference for Ambrosia. The final blow comes when the director of the Burlington Art Museum dashes Nargle’s lifelong dream of having his paintings hung there, wondering whether the artist has never authentically painted from his soul.
Dejected but determined to make a fresh start of things, Nargle has his signature hairdo sheared off by his barber, who offers him “medical marijuana” and a vial of gummi-bear candies as a parting gift, together with a paper sack filled with the artist’s shorn locks. In a burst of expressionistic authenticity at last, Nargle returns to his barn-studio and douses his lifetime collection of landscapes by flinging cans of paint at them, turning them into abstract “drip” paintings à la Jackson Pollock. As he drifts into his pot-induced nirvana, ashes from his pipe ignite the paint and his studio is soon engulfed in flames, despite his girlfriend’s sudden appearance and efforts to rescue him.
Kudos to the special effects crew of Paint for their stunning depictions of Nargle’s paint-drenched studio, which now resembles a chapel illuminated by multicolored stained-glass windows as flames engulf the triangular structure.
Nargle’s remains are identified via the DNA in the strands of hair strewn in his studio, and news of his death is disseminated. Here, Paint veers into a more metaphysical realm, for its final scenes depict a younger, “resurrected” Nargle who has finally abandoned his fear and timidity to paint from his soul. A morality tale with a happy ending.
Owen Wilson’s talents make him a likeable and authentic antihero, and Ciara Renée Harper plays her role as usurper with aplomb and wisdom beyond her years. The supporting characters—notably Lusia Strus, Michaela Watkins, and Wendi McLendon-Covery—can always be counted upon to provide plenty of comic relief. Paint is not a spectacular production by any means. But it is a pleasing one—one that has its own charms as a study of creativity cramped by provincialism. Sap is the beginning of sapience, if you’re patient enough to endure the wintry interludes in this thought-provoking fable of springtime reborn.
Here’s the Trailer of the film.