It’s not difficult to come up with a stupid, idiotic premise for a comedy; the challenge is carrying it out for 90 minutes. The notion of Steve Carell playing a 40-year-old virgin is interesting, but the execution is what makes The 40-Year-Old Virgin exceptional. Superbad is basically a film about three high school teenagers attempting to buy wine for a party without the comedy and sadness. Step Brothers provided the script for Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly as man-children. A humorous idea on paper is one thing, but translating it into a feature-length film is quite another.
Paint, written and produced by Brit McAdams, is a comedy focused on a single image: Owen Wilson dressed up as a Bob Ross-style painter—complete with afro—that might easily convince everyone who views this photo to want to see this film. Return your attention to Owen Wilson. What a blunder! What a bizarre concept that can only lead to tremendous humor! However, the notion of Paint begins and ends with this picture of Wilson all Ross’ed up, in a film that appears to forget that a comedy requires laughter.
Wilson portrays Carl Nargle, the host of Vermont Public Broadcasting’s most popular painting program. For decades, Nargle has amassed a following that admires his peaceful manner as he paints scene after landscape, frequently with the same mountain in each of them. Carl Nargle is a Vermont public television celebrity. That is, until the network employs Ambrosia (Ciara Renée) as a painter in the hour after Carl’s show. Ambrosia is a little more bold, creating more than one picture in an hour (a rarity in the realm of public radio painting programs), and her art is certainly more daring than Carl’s, depicting things like a UFO spilling gallons of blood into the woods.
Katherine (Michaela Watkins), a station employee and Carl’s previous girlfriend, was instrumental in Ambrosia’s hiring. Carl romantically worked his way through the rest of the station’s workers after they parted up. While she loathed him for it, Carl has yet to find another muse to rival Katherine. Carl’s popularity begins to fade as Ambrosia helps boost the station’s ratings, and there may not be enough room in Burlington, Vermont for two public broadcasting painters.
Paint advertises itself thematically as an almost Anchorman-esque picture with an openly sexual Bob Ross, yet nothing is done with that premise. It’s almost as though McAdams believes that merely staring at Carl and his massive hair and out-of-date Western shirts—a visual humor that has already run its course before the film even begins—will be enough to keep this picture alive. The majority of the attempts at humor here are merely pointing out Carl’s innate stupidity and outmoded methods. He’s still perplexed by cell phones, has no idea what Uber is, and is fascinated by the number of pages his most recent romantic conquest can fax. Carl isn’t really funny—nothing against Wilson—and the writing does little more than reinforce his archaic attitude and manner.
But it’s perplexing how infrequently McAdams’ writing even attempts to be funny. It’s not that Paint is attempting horrible jokes that go flat; there are a few of those, but there aren’t many jokes. Instead, we’re left watching this outmoded artist struggle to navigate his professional and romantic affairs in a plain manner. Despite ending on an absolutely killer joke that comes out of nowhere given what came before it, Paint isn’t a bad attempt at humor because it doesn’t feel like one.
McAdams’ screenplay also gives the spectator little cause to care about the story or the persons at the core of the picture. Carl is introduced as a rather womanizing artist who has let fame get to him, so there’s little reason for us to be interested in his trip. Similarly, every other character’s story revolves mainly around Carl, making it difficult to appreciate what the film is accomplishing with them on their own.
Paint, for example, establishes a potentially intriguing connection between Katherine and Ambrosia and then abandons it without rhyme or reason, save that Carl’s shadow shadows huge over both of these people. We also discover that the Vermont Public Broadcasting network is fighting to stay viable, and while this appears to be an attempt to raise the stakes of the film, it’s difficult to care about this when the film itself isn’t interested in the notion.
It’s a pity, because Paint has a fantastic ensemble consisting of wonderful comedy performers that are basically squandered. Watkins is always fantastic, and she’s delightful here, but she’s not given much to do. The same can be said for Wendi McLendon-Covey and Luisa Strus, who play one-note characters that are never necessary. Ryan Gaul, who plays a delivery truck driver with no lines and is employed as little more than a plot device, is a prime illustration of this sort of disrespect for Paint’s comic skill. Sarah Baker is likewise wasted as little more than a glorified extra. The tools are there to make Paint a potentially funny comedy, but McAdams doesn’t know what to do with them.
Which leads us back to Wilson, who is doing his best as Carl, but without a screenplay to support him, he’s stuck flailing in the same mannerisms and barely-there gags. Paint nearly feels like it’s attempting to be like Jared Hess’ flicks (more on the level of Gentlemen Broncos than Napoleon Dynamite or even Nacho Libre), and at points does recall of Wilson’s wacky 2000s-era in films like Zoolander or Starsky & Hutch. While it would be fantastic to see Wilson in that role again, Paint does not adequately portray Wilson’s humorous abilities.
Paint is a weird effort to produce a comedy while doing the bare minimum to make that comedy genuinely humorous. While a poster of an afro’ed Owen Wilson may get butts in seats, it will not keep them from getting up and leaving. McAdams has the talent and resources to make Paint more than simply a hilarious picture extended into a 90-minute film. McAdams, on the other hand, takes his canvas and wrecks it with poor paint.