Beauty is EmbarrassingReviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 03/17/13 10:32:24
Wayne White seems like a nice fellow, thoroughly well-adjusted and funny without the wackiness necessarily seeming too much like a put-on. That may make "Beauty Is Embarrassing" a relatively unique entry in the genre of artist documentaries, which all-too-often ask the audience to believe that because someone can use a paintbrush or guitar, their substance abuse or self-centered nature is somehow interesting. Of course, this means that it's up to White and his art to keep the audience interested, and, well, they're nice enough.White is probably best known for designing the sets of Pee-Wee's Playhouse, a cramped, surreal, and wonderfully silly environment that netted him three Emmy Awards. That was twenty years ago, but he's been keeping busy since, often with a series of words painted on found landscape paintings. He's also worked in cartooning, puppetry, and animation.
There's not necessarily a lot of drama in White's story; he started drawing at an early age, and while each step he took in his life moved him further from his Tennessee roots, he generally seems to find some measure of success and contentment in college, New York, and Los Angeles without much bitterness toward what he's leaving behind (though it doesn't happen overnight). Director Neil Berkeley does find a certain amount of tension there, mainly during a return home and reunion with a fellow artist who stayed there - not so much tension between them, but White seeming a little more reticent and with interview comments about the southern paternal figure being something he always rebelled against and something that makes it into his work. There are some entertaining plays on that - a scene where he dances a barefoot jig after saying nobody considered him particularly southern until he left the south which is as much a play on Yankees' stereotypes as a swipe and the big Lyndon Johnson mascot head he and son Woodrow build plays into - but it's worth noting that they were literally manufactured for the movie.
That doesn't make those themes phony, but it does suggest that their significance may be a bit exaggerated. It can sometimes be easy to say the same about his art, too, based on what we see in the movie - we're told he's successful and well-regarded, but there's seldom anything much like a deep dig into it. Maybe that's just the nature of the beast with work meant to provoke honest laughter - in fact, that's sort of the point being made by the presentation that threads through the movie and contributes the title, that joy is just as powerful as sorrow but we don't know what to do with it.
The interviews are enjoyable, especially if you're not expecting big, teary confessionals. The biggest name is probably Paul Reubens, who like many is generally complimentary of White and his work. The best moments aren't even necessarily specific to White as an artist, such as seeing him try hard not to comment on his daughter's painting or having his first-grade teacher arrive at an event."Beauty Is Embarrassing" isn't a great movie, just a good one. That's not a judgment on Wayne White as an artist or a man; he seems to be on solid ground there. Without an extraordinary story, this movie needs amazing artwork, and White's stuff isn't quite in that category for me.
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