The thousands of mixed-race couples brave enough to get married before the establishment of civil rights deserve a movie, but no one deserves “The Painting.” This is the sort of film that would drive Miss Daisy to upchuck at the shenanigans of its saintly, cardboard characters and its bizarre, rose-colored depiction of U.S. race relations. “The Painting” starts out as a sort of wannabe Ivory-Merchant, a production of “The Not Ready for Masterpiece Theater” players, and then it gets weird.
Directed by Joshua Rose and written by Buddy Shieffield, with a story by David Rose and J. Marina Muhlfriedel, this is the story of the love between the white, rich and privileged Randy Barrington IV (played by Cody Dorkin at age 13, and from 18 on by Heath Freeman) and the black and somewhat less privileged Hallie Ayres (Shari Dyon Perry and Stacey Dash). The problem is, we’re in the 1960s, and Randy is the son of an art-obsessed multimillionaire.
A third-generation Kansas City-born tycoon with a mysterious British accent, Randolf Barrington IV (Charles Shaughnessy, TV’s “The Nanny”) is a basically decent and broadminded man, but he ultimately draws the line at an interracial marriage. Randolf the elder is notable because he’s the only person around with the slightest persistent character flaw.
The reason no one else in the movie has any flaws is that they all listen to Thomas Ayres, the Barringtons’ butler and driver. Played with dignity and a touch of humor by showbiz lifer Clifton Davis (“Any Given Sunday,” “That’s My Mama!”), Ayres is in the Sidney Poitier tradition of superhuman cinematic black men. His superpower is that every time he gives a speech, which he does as often as most people change their underwear, whoever is listening immediately realizes the error of his or her ways. (Mr. Dickson of “Room 222” had the same ability. Must be some kind of power-ring bequeathed by the Guardians of Oa….)
As the story progresses and the millionaire tries to keep his son away from Thomas’s niece, the butler quits rather than be a party to keeping the couple apart. A whole lot of other stuff happens over the film’s 105 minutes, but, despite a mostly African-American cast, most of it still happens to the white people.
Speaking of the cast, nobody – black or white – emerges unscathed. Sometimes the actors almost connect; other times, they barely seem to be listening to each other. I enjoyed seeing Ben Vereen (“Roots,” “All That Jazz,” etc.), a favorite of my youth, but I didn’t know what to make of his wizened blind gospel singer. He would be just another walking, talking cliche, except that also seems to be putting the moves on a teenage male civil rights worker.
Boy, but these people are ahead of their time.Yet, “The Painting” is the sort of sixties movie where the makers are so terrified we’ll forget it’s about the sixties that they feel compelled to include every historical event of the time. There will be shock and horror after the assassinations of JFK, MLK, and RFK. There will be arguments about the Vietnam war. We will hear “A Whiter Shade of Pale” and “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” We will spend time with the grunts in ‘Nam. Ultimately, the only thing which saves viewers of “The Painting” from unrelieved torture is its steadily growing shamelessness. By the film’s end, the plot has taken so many turns in its desperation to make us feel something, a kind of giddiness takes over. A few tragic moments might actually threaten to cause a brief lump in the throat – but then something so absurdly contrived happens, so obviously inflicted on the characters, that all you can do is giggle.
Note to screenwriters: If you’re going to create an African-American character who’s a kindly, wise and compassionate servant, and people keep calling him “Uncle,” you might want to think through the implications of naming him “Thomas.”