‘Tim’s Vermeer’ Review: Who Knew Invention, Obsession, and Painting with Light Could Be So Fun?

By  · Published on September 14th, 2013

‘Tim’s Vermeer’ Review: Who Knew Invention, Obsession, and Painting with Light Could Be So Fun?

If the plotline of Teller’s (yes, of Penn and Teller fame and, yes, he legally changed his name to just “Teller” years ago) documentary, Tim’s Vermeer, sounds unbelievably dry and not jammed with anything resembling mainstream appeal, well, that’s a fair assumption – but it’s also incorrect. The film centers on a longtime pal of Teller’s comedy partner, Penn Jillette (who frequently appears in the film), technology executive Tim Jenison, whose slightly obsessive and curious nature has long been obsessed with the works of Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer. An old world master who “painted with light” (and, no, not in the Thomas Kinkade way), Vermeer’s work has enthralled art fans for centuries, thanks to its unmistakable photorealism and a skill set that apparently set him apart from his contemporaries. While not a star during his lifetime, Vermeer is now considered one of the finest painters of the Dutch Golden Age.

And Tim, who has never picked up a paintbrush in his life, wants to paint a work in Vermeer’s style. Wait, no, not just in his style, but a painting that so deftly mirrors Vermeer’s work that it could actually be mistaken for a true Vermeer.

Tim’s Vermeer is not the story of a regular guy (and Jenison, for all his technological know-how and vast wealth, really does come across like a very nice, very regular guy) bent on some insane quest that would require years of training, because Jenison is convinced that Vermeer used his own technological know-how to craft his paintings. To illustrate just how profoundly detailed Vermeer’s work are, Tim’s Vermeer presents comparisons of his work and that of some of his contemporaries – the effect is shocking, Vermeer’s paintings literally look like photographs compared to the other works. So how did a guy with little formal training so far exceed his peers? If Jenison, Tim’s Vermeer, and a batch of experts are to be believed, he sort of fudged them, thanks to the use of a camera obscura, a tiny mirror, and a lot of patience.

Jenison’s beliefs are not unique – along the way, we learn about other books on the subject and other artists (include the divine David Hockney) and art historians whose early research on such matters helped fuel Jenison’s ideas – but Tim’s Vermeer finds its story in following Jenison as he tries to put his theories into literal action. Jenison’s years-in-the-making plan to completely replicate a room in Vermeer’s house where most of his paintings are believed to have been staged is a complicated one, and as a dry and wonky as it sounds, the film is amusingly and entertainingly told. Jenison and Jillette have a wonderful chemistry and sense of humor about what they’re doing, and the film zips right along because of it. The generous inclusion of other talking head types (including Martin Mull, because why not) keeps the pacing of the film ticking right along, though things eventually slow to a crawl during the final days (fine, weeks) of Jenison’s actual painting process.

If nothing else, Tim’s Vermeer seems to primed to enthrall and engage a very mixed audience, including plenty of non-arty types. While it may not dive as deeply into the inevitable questions of how Vermeer’s technological advances may or may not have reduced his artistic accomplishments (personally, I’m of the opinion that they don’t, they actually make Vermeer a more interesting and well-rounded artist), it’s relentlessly entertaining and breezily funny.

The Upside: An unexpectedly funny and entertaining story, an engaging main character to follow, explores a seemingly dry subject with pizzazz and pop.

The Downside: Glosses over some time periods and some small complications in an unsatisfying way, the final act tends to drag until finally reaching its conclusion.

On the Side: Jenison’s technological inventions include DigiView, DigiPaint, and the Amiga Video Toaster.

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