Review: “Paint” is a Middling Absurdist Comedy

With an intriguing premise and a dedicated lead performance from Owen Wilson, Brit McAdam’s Paint should be a delightfully weird time at the cinema.  Unfortunately, the narrative can’t decide if the absurdity wins out or the inherent darkness.  The result is a middling experience.

Wilson stars as Carl Nargle, the beloved host of Vermont’s top public access show, Paint with Carl Nargle. Despite his success, Carl struggles to connect physically with his girlfriend Jenna (Lucy Freyer) as well as balancing the relationship with his ex Katherine (Michaela Watkins), who is also his producer.

In order to boost the failing station, GM Tony (Stephen Root) hires Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) to host her own painting show right after Carl’s show. Ambrosia’s popularity and the threat to Carl’s celebrity sends him spinning. With his relationships suffering, and questions rising about his own artistic ability, Carl stands to lose everything if he doesn’t do something about it.

The film approaches some fascinating ideas on nice-guy mythology. Carl’s relationships with women is by no means aggressive or abusive, but can still be seen as corrupt. In fact, a scene where Ambrosia calls Carl out on his actions towards women gives the film a chance to take a stand on the sexism of powerful men. Instead, it’s just brushed off and forgotten.

Additionally, the ideas of “good” art are touched on, but it becomes much more about the artist. Is the art important or is the artist a reflection of that art? On top of that, what role does the artist’s own life play into how the art is received? Ultimately, these questions are lightly touched on instead of actually explored. At every opportunity, Paint has the chance to touch a level of unexpected greatness, but decides to toss it aside in favor of absurdism.

That doesn’t mean all the absurdism doesn’t land. Carl has a running bit when in his van where he responds to people through a loudspeaker, but never talks above a gentle whisper. Ambrosia keeps making more violent and ridiculous paintings. Another public access host can’t ever seem to recognize the correct camera setup. The film doesn’t ever lean further into these, but just dips its toe in enough to make the film oddly toned. A commitment to a more serious drama, or a more absurdist comedy would have served the narrative better.

Speaking of commitment, Wilson is fully onboard with the Carl character. The idea of creating a Bob Ross-esque character and send him spinning is one thing, but Wilson keeps the layers of darkness just a centimeter under the surface. It feels like Carl could burst into fits of violence at any time, but he’s too sad to ever let that reveal itself. Wilson knows what the film wants him to be and he is willing to be as ridiculous as necessary for the sake of the film.

Renée is a breath of fresh air and the polar opposite of what Wilson represents. While he is gentle and calming, she is abrasive and bright. While initially presented as the potential villain, Ambrosia gets some additional layers and context which provides a refreshing conclusion to her side of the story. Watkins is the driving force for most of the relationships in the film, but her character is underwritten and underdeveloped.

Root is always a welcome sight, especially in a role like this. Root specializes in characters who are drowning and doing everything in their power to stay afloat. His performance is a welcome addition to those characters. Freyer is a fresh face in the narrative, who adds a level of sweetness you aren’t expecting. Wendy McLendon-Covey has some of the best lines, despite also being underdeveloped.

Never committing to the darkness or the ridiculousness, Paint lands squarely in the middle no matter what audiences are expecting. By no means a disaster, the film just can’t match the level of commitment of its lead actor.

Paint opens in select theaters on Friday, April 7th
Score: 2.5/5.0

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