The Broad-Strokes Approach of “Paint” Blurs Bob Ross’s Legacy

Owen Wilson stars as a Bob Ross knock-off in Paint, a film that taps into the late TV painter’s complex legacy yet messily sidesteps it.

A still from “Paint.” Image courtesy of IFC Films

Bob Ross never cared to brag about his creative prowess; rather, he painted to show how good of an artist you, the viewer, could be. Throughout the run of The Joy of Painting, which aired on PBS for 31 seasons across more than 400 episodes, the late art instructor’s dulcet instructions cosseted viewers as they completed oil paintings of serene landscapes along with him or simply watched for the ASMR of it all. But lingering underneath Ross’s wispy afro are some murky allegations of womanizing and an ugly legal dispute over his estate that ultimately did little to quash public perceptions of Ross as a wholesome, tender-hearted figure.

So avid fans of Ross—and there are millions—will perhaps take issue with how his likeness is portrayed in Paint, a new film starring Owen Wilson as a knock-off of the beloved figure. His character, Carl Nargle, has carved out a successful career as a televised painter of quaint bucolic vistas on a public access channel in present-day Vermont that, as one critic describes, is “suffused with a twee, ‘80s-lite vibe.” Though popular with viewers, his career snags when he gets replaced by a new host, Ambrosia, a younger, more efficient upstart painter. After she brings in better ratings, the network fires Nargle and he’s relegated to teaching at a local university. 

Throughout, sordid scandals involving Nargle’s unscrupulous relationships with women cast a shadow over Ross’s legacy while messily sidestepping it. The local paper describes Nargle as a washed-up “sexist” while Ambrosia tells him “You used your brush to seduce and destroy the people who loved you.” Yet all of his transgressions are depicted off-screen, manifesting blithely as women swooning behind the camera, hoping to get in the foldout bed inside the painter’s orange van. 

Still from “Bob Ross: Happy Accidents, Betrayal & Greed.” Image courtesy of Netflix

“Nargle’s crimes are that he broke up with someone by walkie-talkie, that he fed a young vegan some cheese, and that, after his girlfriend cheated on him, he cheated back. But even this revenge is laced with Nargle’s dopey innocence and hurt, leaving viewers to balance his petty actions against what looks like a hyperbolic response from the women in his life,” one critic writes for ARTnews. “It’s an underhanded move that would leave Nargle looking like a victim if the whole plot wasn’t so unconvincing.” The unseen antics may recall the mystery of TÁR, but one critic notes director Brit McAdams lacks the “comedic chops to make this approach entertaining or interesting.”

Paint’s broad-strokes approach instead obfuscates the real scandal clouding Ross’s legacy: the tense legal battle over his estate. Annette and Walt Kowalski founded Bob Ross Inc. and plastered his likable image and happy maxims onto mugs, blankets, Halloween costumes, and various hobby crafts. Ross left his estate to his son, Steve, before his untimely death of lymphoma in 1995. The Kowalskis contested the will, and a 2021 Netflix documentary alleges the couple swindled Steve out of millions. He spoke to director Joshua Rofé in a last-ditch effort to spark outrage and get the case re-litigated as his father’s legacy remains in jeopardy. Nargle’s date with light shame and irrelevance may strike some as simply vapid in comparison. 

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