In our age of sophistication and snark, earnestness is a character trait that provokes laughter more than anything else—think of Kenneth in 30 Rock or Ned Flanders from The Simpsons. Local Color is a welcome exception, centering itself around John, an idealistic young artist who yearns to understand beauty and truth, and a charismatic, confident performance by Trevor Morgan makes this quest vital, not hokey.

Set in 1974, Local Color is constructed as a flashback, with a now-successful John reminiscing in voiceover about the summer when he transformed into an artist. His blue-collar parents don't understand his artistic desires, with his father (Ray Liotta) fearful that John's drawings of male nudes mean that his son is a homosexual.

Trevor Morgan as John

Trevor Morgan as John

When John discovers that his hero, Russian landscape painter Nicoli Seroff (Armin Mueller-Stahl), lives just nearby, he can barely contain his excitement. Without a hint of timidity, he knocks on Seroff's door and proclaims his admiration and begs the old master to teach him to paint. Nicoli puts him off at first, but a friendship slowly develops; the painter later invites John to spend the summer with him in the Pennsylvania countryside, an invitation that John accepts against his father's will.

Nicoli is a cantankerous, vodka-swilling firebrand of an old dog who wants nothing to do with modern art. He's prone to obscenity-laden lectures on the uselessness of non-representational art, the meaning of beauty, and the responsibility of the painter to the truth. He loathes the art establishment for pooh-poohing landscape art, serving up venom and vitriol for the modern art that derives from the work of artists like Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Wassily Kandinsky. It's heady stuff, but Mueller-Stahl's intensity makes these concepts seem relevant, even alive.

Armin Mueller-Stahl as Nicoli

Armin Mueller-Stahl as Nicoli

John is thrilled on his first day when Nicoli orders him to paint—only to find himself painting the front porch. Nicoli keeps John busy with handyman work, and John quickly grows frustrated with his mentor's lack of instruction in art. Undaunted, he carves out time for himself to paint the natural beauty that surrounds him, only to have his work scorned by Nicoli as derivative and shallow. His resentment grows when he meets Carla (Samantha Mathis), a lovely and sad neighbor who brings Nicoli baked goods and helps him decorate his house. John is instantly attracted to Carla, and angered when Nicoli dismisses him like a servant when Carla comes around.

Unfortunately, in execution Local Color just does not bolster the arguments being made in the film. Writer-director George Gallo's script—a semi-autographical account of his own summer of '74—lacks dramatic energy, mostly because the depictions of John's home life rely upon stock characterizations and use dialogue that's been sitting out for far too long in the hot sun. Liotta does the best he can with what he's given, but his character is nothing more than a bundle of clichés. In a film that places so much emphasis on finding truth and beauty in everyday life, the domestic scenes lack depth, originality, and creativity.

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Ron Perlman as Curtis

Ron Perlman as Curtis

More frustrating is the lack of visual beauty in the film, which undercuts the strength of the argument that Gallo hopes to make about the power of representational art. The cinematography is full of wide establishing shots of the Pennsylvania countryside, but these images don't sing. A few times Gallo plays with a visual effect that turns a freeze frame into a painting, but he doesn't carry through with the idea and the images themselves aren't particularly inspired.

Nicoli's lectures are compelling because Mueller-Stahl makes them so, not because the story is well told. In a central scene, Nicoli humiliates his close friend Curtis, an art critic played by Ron Perlman, by showing him watercolors made by mentally challenged kids. A champion of expressionism, Curtis praises the pieces for their depth and pain, and Nicoli gloats when he reveals the identities of the artists. It's a cheap shot, dramatically speaking, saved only by the power of Nicoli's beliefs and the strength of the performances.

The specter of Thomas Kinkade hangs over Local Color, as he is perhaps the best-known contemporary landscape artist. It would have been to the film's benefit had it engaged with some of the failings of the genre as well, showing how Nicoli, a true artist, infuses his landscape paintings with the truth. It's a hard concept for non-artists to grasp, particularly in our visually-saturated world. In many ways, there's nothing new about a painting of a tree, because we've seen so many images of trees.

Samantha Mathis as Carla

Samantha Mathis as Carla

It doesn't help that when Curtis accuses Nicoli of being sentimental, Nicoli responds, "What's wrong with sentiment?" Only everything, that's all. Sentiment is to genuine emotion what a grape lollipop is to a glass of Cabernet. Of course, Nicoli's paintings aren't meant to be "sentimental" in a Kinkade kind of way. He aims to communicate "the beauty of being alive." But without close looks at Nicoli's works and without exceptional cinematography, we don't see what he means.

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Local Color sets out to prove that modern art is impoverished because it's not accessible to the uneducated and unsophisticated, and this is a point well worth taking. But the film fails to achieve the very excellence it urges; the beauty that calls to John—and that Nicoli defends—is just not present in the craft of the film. Despite the color that Mueller-Stahl and Morgan bring to their roles, Local Color remains as flat as a monochrome painting.

Talk About It

Discussion starters
  1. Do you agree or disagree with Nicoli's assertion that non-representational art is just the emperor's new clothes? If you disagree, how does so-called modern art speak to you?

  2. In what ways are you called to pursue truth and beauty in your own work? How does this play out in every day life?

  3.   What are some examples of works of art—in any media—that successfully proclaim the truth about Christ? What makes them successful?

  4. What are some examples of art that attempts but fails to proclaim the truth about Christ? Why does this happen and how can it be avoided by artists?

The Family Corner

For parents to consider

Local Color is rated R for language. There's a lot of profanity. Nicoli, apparently an alcoholic, drinks vodka through the whole movie. Two characters kiss passionately.

What other Christian critics are saying:
  1. Plugged In
  2. Crosswalk
  3. Catholic News Service
  4. Past the Popcorn

Local Color
Our Rating
2½ Stars - Fair
Average Rating
(1 user ratings)ADD YOURSHelp
Mpaa Rating
R (for language)
Directed By
George Gallo
Run Time
1 hour 47 minutes
Armin Mueller-Stahl, Trevor Morgan, Ray Liotta
Theatre Release
August 15, 2009 by Empire Film Group
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