In Brit McAdams’s new film Paint, Owen Wilson plays Carl Nargle, a Bob Ross knockoff with the same cloud of hair, the same whispery way of speaking, and the same job, painting quaint country vistas on public access TV. Just don’t call him Bob Ross, because the film seems intent on building out Nargle as a fictional character navigating a present day that, via the film’s art direction, is suffused with a twee, ’80s-lite vibe.
Ross became a sensation during his lifetime, and his fame has continued on after death, with a recent Twitch marathon of his Joy of Painting TV series attracting more than 5 million viewers. Nargle, in this film’s world, never achieved that level of success.
Instead, Nargle languishes as a figure of local popularity in Burlington, Vermont. The women who work with him swoon over his groovy van—all except one. From the very beginning, we note that Katherine (Michaela Watkins) feels cold toward him. They were once lovers, years ago, but no longer. Small-town renown changed Nargle for the worse, apparently.
Here comes strike one against this flaw-filled film. Perhaps in some allusion to Ross’s purported sensual charisma, of the sort that could titillate female viewers through their screens, Nargle has some kind of vague effect on women, one that seems purposefully obfuscated.
In the film, women like Nargle. He dates them; sometimes he has sex with them, but often, he doesn’t. We never see him pursue women, however. They come to him, and he is disinterested.
Yet the local paper describes him as a washed-up “sexist” and his foil, a young upstart painter named Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), tells him, “You used your brush to seduce and destroy the people who loved you.”
The film’s insistence on avoiding any transgressions comes off as an effort to steer clear of legal trouble with the Ross estate. It wouldn’t do if this Ross lookalike was running around the film pantomiming serious wrongdoings that the real-life painter was never accused of.
Paint may at times recall a certain Best Picture nominee from this year that also featured off-screen sexual manipulation by an artsy type, but TÁR, this is not. Nargle’s crimes are that he broke up with someone by walkie-talkie, that he fed a young vegan some cheese, and that, after his girlfriend cheated on him, he cheated back. But even this revenge is laced with Nargle’s dopey innocence and hurt, leaving viewers to balance his petty actions against what looks like a hyperbolic response from the women in his life. It’s an underhanded move that would leave Nargle looking like a victim if the whole plot wasn’t so unconvincing.
Nargle’s fall from grace begins when Ambrosia is hired by PBS Burlington to also do a painting show. She’s young, mixed-race, gay, and can do two paintings in the allotted time. Unlike Nargle, she doesn’t depict the same conifers or mountains, but she has a flair for another kind of kitsch, depicting UFOs, lightsabers, and dinosaurs. Supposedly this is evidence of her abundant originality and true artist’s spirit.
Ambrosia’s mere presence stirs up female dissent. They forget to do little tasks for Nargle. It’s a sign of the times. Even Katherine falls under her spell.
It’s a narrative dynamic that has sprouted in the wake of #MeToo: pit the old, antiquated white guy against a fresher, female, non-white competitor, forming a soft “great replacement” story. Except, of course, the white dude is never quite replaced.
In this case, the old dog learns new tricks. Nargle’s painting improves, he gets the girl, and all is right with the world.