Happy little trees

Social satire between the brushstrokes in ‘Paint’

Carl Nargle as Owen Wilson in 'Paint.' Photo courtesy IFC Films.

With a tightly wound blond perm, a smoker’s pipe and a voice that registers just north of a whisper, Carl Nargle is one of the biggest draws on Burlington, Vermont public television. Broadcasting daily from 3 to 4 p.m., Carl paints pictures in real-time for a devoted following of viewers in retirement homes, aspiring painters and women so smitten with him they can barely contain themselves. To put it simply, Carl is the man.

One of the best jokes running through Paint, the feature debut of writer-director Brit McAdams, is that Carl (Owen Wilson) is the man — the number-one celebrity of Burlington — but that doesn’t amount to a whole lot. When the station’s pledge drive rolls around, he uses his status to drum up donations by challenging the station’s newest star, Ambrosia (Ciara Renée), to a paint-off. It works: Carl brings in a whopping $845 in pledges, almost seven times what Ambrosia musters. Too bad the station needs $300,000 to stay afloat.

That station, which has never had the funds or the inclination to update their ’80s-era Apple computers, is run by Tony (Stephen Root), originally hired to design graphics, and Katherine (Michaela Watkins), who is on her way out for a job at PBS Albany. That’s trouble for Tony, who is woefully over his head in the management department, and Carl, who has been having a silent love affair with Katherine for some time now. 

Carl and Katherine had an almost connection years ago, but it was cut short by an unfortunate perm mishap. It’s been tense ever since. It also caused quite a creative block in Carl’s painting. He used to be able to paint all sorts of things, but now all he can muster are endless portraits of Mount Mansfield. Even in a fit of destruction, the highest peak in Vermont pours out of him. When Carl bottoms out, he paints an all-black canvas. What is it, someone asks. Mount Mansfield at night, Carl replies.

Paint has a delightful sense of humor that exists somewhere between Bob Ross, Wes Anderson and Portlandia. Vermont and PBS certainly get their licks, but so does the divide between high and low art. Carl’s dream is to hang on the line in Burlington’s art museum, but the director isn’t having it. He would rather show off the museum’s newly painted walls or Ambrosia’s paintings of a UFO dumping blood on a stump in a forest.

Ambrosia gets about everything Carl wants and has, from a spot at the museum to his groupies at the station to even Katherine for a hot minute. Eventually the self-absorbed, soft-spoken white Luddite — Carl doesn’t even have call-waiting on his landline — is replaced by an edgy, young, queer, bi-racial woman.

But that’s not the joke of Paint. The joke is that the industry sees these two talents as essentially interchangeable. Both of their shows are shot on the same set but from two slightly different camera angles, so the backgrounds look different: warm wood for Carl, modernist slate black for Ambrosia. And that the same audience who first cancels Carl because he smokes a pipe while he paints, welcomes him back with open arms once his old episodes are edited for modern sensibilities. It all amounts to a low-key satire, a comedy in autumnal tones, that’s as satisfying as it is silly.

ON SCREEN: Paint is out now in limited release.

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