The PBS style has been lampooned on the big screen before. However, few films have decided to create original stories around the basic idea of a PBS story. In many ways, Paint borrows from such a recognizable character that it never feels wholly original. At the same time, it gives star Owen Wilson enough space to shift away from the Bob Ross impression it mirrors. Director Brit McAdams crafts a charming spell that brings its setting to life. The cottage-core aesthetic builds a beautiful visual palette that makes Paint an excellent vehicle for Wilson.
At a small town Vermont PBS station, Carl Nargle (Wilson) achieved local superstardom. His staff (Lucy Freyer, Luisa Strus, & Wendi McLendon-Covey) adore his every action. His ex-girlfriend Katherine (Michaela Watkins) continues to produce his show with station head Tony (Stephen Root). With the station needing a boost in revenue, Katherine suggests a new fresh artist join the schedule. When Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) becomes an overnight celebrity, Nargle must reckon with his place in the world.
McAdams, who serves as both writer and director, allows Paint to get weird yet never leaves its cozy confines. The comedy would feel at home in Anchorman or Barb & Star. The screenplay is chock-full of absurdist bits. Most play to the back row and commit to their execution to a hilarious degree. They rarely hit on one level but often work on several levels. Allowing the cast to go as far as possible with a gag brings up the energy. Each performer seems to know that something special could come at any moment.
Wilson leads Paint, playing a more subdued version of similar Wes Anderson characters. This is not bad, as McAdams seems to pull visual cues from Anderson’s work. Wilson carries himself with a comedic confidence that feels like a throwback to earlier characters we’ve seen before. He truly comes alive during scenes with Watkins and the two display incredible chemistry. She gets to show a new side, as she’s rarely played broad comedies in live-action. She’s a perfect foil to Wilson while also bringing chemistry with every member of the ensemble.
Renée copies her character’s breakthrough. She’s played superheroes on television but feels perfectly at home in the indie comedy scene. Renée brings out her subtle moments. It’s a surprisingly emotional and subdued performance, essentially playing a straight man to the rest of the cast.
Paint gets a considerable boost from the rest of the ensemble. McLendon-Covey and Strus go big, and it works throughout the film. Freyer also shows talent, playing a sweeter and more innocent character than the rest in the movie. She brings a youthful energy that makes her far more than a simple conquest for Wilson’s Nargle. Root brings his manic energy from Barry to life here. Every bit the schemer, he owns the role of a white dude who accidentally stumbles into success.
While there are few moments of sexuality on screen, there’s an undercurrent of sex throughout the film. That brings the most complications to the movie. At times, Paint underserves its female characters. Multiple women apologize for their success and cannot achieve at the level of their peers. Jokes about the age differences in relationships only apply when women date other women. However, Wilson’s character dates multiple young women without comment.
Another woman apologizes to Wilson for a single outburst, while his idiocy puts her in several unfortunate situations. At times, he displays a lack of professionalism, almost making him an unlikeable oaf. Even though he sleeps around, Wilson gets a pass because other characters cheat on him. There’s an odd double standard that feels especially odd in the context of Paint.
Despite this hangup, Paint and Wilson make for a winning combination. The comedy delivers some of the funniest moments of the year. Add in the excellent setting, which at once feels timeless and, at the same time, chained to a specific place, and you’ve got something special. With an excellent ensemble and fantastic vibes, Paint will certainly help Wilson with his career revival.