‘Paint’ is one of my new favorite movies

Images courtesy IFC Films.

10/10 Paint is so funny I almost choked on my popcorn and died several times while watching it, but there’s nothing funny about how well-made it is. This is a beautiful, almost haunting film about personal stagnation, longing and missed opportunity.

I’m completely serious, this is a new “desert island” movie for me.

Burlington, Vermont- Carl Nargle (Owen Wilson), a painter modeled on Bob Ross, has hosted PBS Burlington’s highest-rated afternoon show “Paint with Carl Nargle” for nearly 30 years. Nargle is a man stuck in time in every conceivable way and more, known around town for the perm he’s worn for nearly 30 years and the custom orange van with no brakes or rearview mirrors that he’s driven for nearly 30 years. He dreams to one day have his work featured in the Burlington Museum of Art, and after hearing the director was looking for a painting of Mount Mansfield, Vermont’s tallest peak that overlooks Burlington, he has spent every one of his broadcast hours painting the mighty Mount Mansfield.

Nargle’s life and career begin to unravel when the struggling studio hires a new painter, Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), to take up a second hour, who quickly overtakes him in popularity. The unwelcome change spurs Nargle to reexamine what’s important in his life and even his human nature itself on an emotional journey that’s been in the making for nearly 30 years.

Paint is a cheap stoner comedy shot over 20 days under COVID restrictions in 2021 after gathering dust on a shelf as a screenplay for 10 years, with writer and eventual director Brit McAdams staying behind it the entire time. His movie finally releases as a story of astonishing emotional honesty and depth, and also one that strafes viewers with about four dick jokes per minute. The blitz of jokes, perfect performances and reams of layers to its dialogue enable the film to be about four different experiences at once, and its calmness and ease make all of them pleasant.

In most comedy movies, the movie is a delivery system between the audience and funny people making jokes. Paint makes its jokes with film form, right up to the moment it cuts to credits. Something as simple as ending the film on this abrupt, deliberately wrong edit, in Paint, is hilarious. The tone is a joke, and therefore everything is a joke. The entire world is a joke, and the 1.85:1 frame is a gateway into it.

Once you watch it a few times and really get a handle on it, you can start to see all the layers of sincere and joke readings operating at once. It reminds me of “The Sopranos,” which has sincere and mocking readings layered into almost every scene. Paint has sincere, mocking and about two more different joke layers in every moment, all of it tightly in service of the theme of Nargle’s inability to move forward.

One of the most persistent layers is the peacefulness of Nargle’s onscreen persona, which blankets the film as other characters meet it. Everyone is so quiet that even the intense tension between Nargle and Ambrosia is further from fighting and closer to the Boston Bruin goalies’ legendary victory hugs this year. A newspaper review that says Ambrosia “gives network a boost” becomes the most crass insult when filtered through the film’s tone, because the tone is the joke. It’s not just a satire of Bob Ross, it’s a satire of the entire archetype of person who watches Bob Ross for years on end.

The film’s overarching humanity is, of course, held up by its uniformly perfect performances. These characters all feel real and completely human even as the punchlines tumble out of their mouths.

Nargle subtly exists outside of time, another way Paint insightfully reinforces its themes and spends incredible artistic ambition on, essentially, a running gag. Everything about the character, from his hair to his paintings, represents his stagnation as a person, which is both extremely profound and extremely silly and one never once compromises the other. Technology seems to vary between individual characters – Nargle doesn’t appear to have a phone and Katherine (Michaela Watkins) is shown taking calls on a rotary – though it only explicitly comes to a head when Jenna (Lucy Freyer) orders an Uber and Nargle says he doesn’t know what that is.

Paint wades mainly into broad metaphors of art as sex, but also art as love, so broad that it stops being a metaphor and just becomes an honest examination of how the drives to make art and have sex reflect back on each other as twin all-consuming emotional needs. The film takes an extremely frank view of human beings’ actual desires in relationships – to feel special.

Characters see Nargle as a womanizer and the “Paint” set is a lineup of former lovers and current girlfriend nearly 30 years his junior, but there would have to be much more background to this for it to be a real problem. Four partners in 20 years is a perfectly reasonable number, and it’s weird that they all did and still work with him, but it seems completely normal in this environment that is centered around him and because of how seductive his attention is shown to be.

Women flock to Nargle because he makes them feel special. The patient, nourishing attitude he applies to his paintings is the same attitude he applies to everyone, love interest or not. However, just as he is stuck painting Mount Mansfield, he is stuck painting the same relationship with all these women, and they lose interest when they realize he sees them all the same way – no matter how well he treats them, he doesn’t really see them because he isn’t really paying attention.  

This is literalized when Katharine cheats on him on camera. The movie de-emphasizes the sex by making it comically brief, just another punchline, but she still leaves mussed and glowing. The affair is still satisfactory because her partner pays attention to her.

Also, Paint is a queer masterpiece. PBS and the entire world is threatening to move on from Nargle, a straight white man who inevitably paints a mountain that has stood since before animals first crawled out of the ocean, to Ambrosia, a queer black woman who works science fiction into her paintings, which often veer into the surreal and are described as frightening by Nargle’s older viewers. She isn’t just a new face who doesn’t have Nargle’s emotional blocks, she’s diverse racially, sexually and creatively. The film’s love triangles as Ambrosia works her way through Nargle’s exes hinge on their explicit bisexuality – just as Nargle’s viewers will watch this woman, his old flames will fuck her.

The overlap of sex and art is everywhere, but it’s so blatant as to be in the movie’s tagline. Nargle starts and ends every episode of “Paint” by inviting his audience to a special place, and everyone around him dryly refers to having sex with him as “going to a special place.” Like everything else, it’s goofy and juvenile, but also a profound observation that supports the rest of the material. 

Nargle is a very narrow character, but he’s so well-drawn that he becomes a metaphor for the patriarchy as a whole in a non-malicious way. He does not understand why he’s being replaced and seems well-meaning but generally blind to the other people around him. In a movie so funny and so aggressive that it feels like every line is a triple entendre, I don’t know how much of Nargle’s constant contradictions are meant to be serious or farcical comedy logic. Obviously we’re supposed to laugh, but it’s difficult to tell how many layers of irony are intended.

But at the same time, it feels like a copout to say I don’t know how seriously to take him, because while I’m applying it as a positive to almost every aspect of the film, I’m also using it as an excuse to not take seriously Nargle’s dating habits, which display serious problems even if I don’t think he’s really womanizing. We see several details that indicate he seeks out relationships with power imbalances and that his coworkers clearly believe his ego is fragile and they’re terrified of bruising it. As a happy little viewer watching a movie that’s extremely wholesome on the surface, I read it as them all wanting that badly to not upset him because he’s such a nice guy and they all love him that much, but that’s not very likely, is it?  

The real point that elevates Paint to a place where I have to approach it as high art is the astonishingly good camerawork from cinematographer Patrick Cady. There’s not a ton of attention-grabbing moves, but the compositions are striking and expressive while still staying silly, and they get progressively more ambitious as the movie goes on. A late scene in which Nargle, at his lowest point, angrily throws paint at his walls, and the camera takes us everywhere in the first person – we’re on the open cans, we’re inside the wall being splattered and we’re above it all looking down on Nargle at various points in the sequence – is a much higher-effort moment than many comedies ever get.

I want to go in-depth on one shot in particular, because it’s such a great illustration of how multi-layered the film is and how thoughtfully and gracefully it executes its concepts with the camera. Nargle is at a stoplight in the right lane and considering, for the first time ever after nearly 30 years, turning right and submitting his work to the museum, but he gets nervous and decides to go straight through before the light turns. His van is shot from behind and the right at a low angle, with his right taillight and turn signal in the center of the frame and the line of the van leading our eyes up to the red light and the “no turn on red” sign. Because of the traffic setup, we’re able to see him change his mind and change direction while at a standstill all contained within a single composition. 

It’s hard to fully encapsulate how perfect a shot this is from a narrative, symbolic and character perspective and how perfect a shot this is for this specific character. Dialogue and editing and pratfalls can be as funny as all get-out, but film is a visual medium, and it will always live and die on the quality of its photography.


Is this the funniest movie in the past, how long? Certainly the past five years. I immediately compare it to the funnies movies I’ve ever seen in their first runs, 2017’s Death of Stalin and 2008’s Burn After Reading, each of which Paint can easily stand joke-for-joke with, but what it reminds me of so, so much is 1998’s The Big Lebowski, with a lot of the same understated delivery that almost hides the breakneck rate of jokes.

I’d also immediately put it in contention for the most powerful character arc I’ve seen in a long, long time. This movie really affected me.

I was initially not planning to review Paint, just make sure I got to see it. As I was walking out of my second screening, I heard Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” playing over the lobby for what felt like the millionth time and realized I’d been to AMC Stonebriar four nights in the past four weeks. That doesn’t sound normal. That sounds like something a real loser would say. But I don’t feel like a loser. Paint is one of those special films that makes me happy I sift through everything that comes to theaters, because the treasures, the real treasures like Paint, they’re worth it.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. If you liked this post, you can donate to Reel Entropy here. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook and reach out to me at reelentropy@gmail.com. 

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