Movie review: 'Tim's Vermeer'

(three stars)

Watching paint dry has never been more fascinating than it is in "Tim's Vermeer," a documentary produced by the magicians Penn & Teller.

In his feature debut, Teller directs this account of how inventor Tim Jenison labored to recreate a Vermeer painting using a controversial method. In order to prove that Johannes Vermeer (the 17th-century Dutch Master behind works like "Girl with a Pearl Earring") achieved his near-photo-realistic effects with the aid of technology, Jenison experimented with simple machine designs to find a functional one. The answer, as Jenison sees it, is a type of camera obscura that would have allowed Vermeer to painstakingly paint over a mirrored image of a live tableau.

One might make certain assumptions about the resulting film, but Jenison told Teller, "if I don't succeed there won't be a movie, right?" and the director responded, "Oh, there will be a movie." And indeed the movie has its elements of suspense: Will the achingly slow process break Jenison mentally, and can a complete amateur at painting produce a work comparable to that of Vermeer? That latter question explains the great offense taken by many art experts to those who support the theory of Vermeer employing technology: Wouldn't such a method turn their old master into something of a fraud?

Others don't see it that way, and Teller and his magician partner Penn Jillette (who serves as narrator and onscreen presence) round up some celebrated folks sympathetic to Jenison's point of view, including English artist David Hockney and comic actor/painter Martin Mull. Such episodes serve to break up potential tedium: Jenison gets out of his studio to Holland and England, where he meets with Hockney and attempts to overcome protocol and examine a Vermeer held in a private area of Buckingham Palace.

The only real knock against "Tim's Vermeer" is that it has the feel of a television documentary (the style is not unlike a more polite, extended episode of Penn & Teller's own docu-series "Bulls**t!"). But the film earns its keep by being informative and briskly entertaining. It helps that the likeably wry Jenison is such an interesting character in his own right, a true Renaissance man and self-made millionaire who has earned the luxury of bettering himself through arts and crafts D.I.Y. hobbyism.

Part of the fun is in the obsessiveness required to even attempt such a stunt, including recruiting and costuming live models (one of whom is Jenison's daughter) and recreating and set-dressing a 17th-century room. All types of obsessives (tech-heads, art geeks and even LARPers) should get a kick out of the lengths to which Jenison goes and the nerdgasm discoveries he makes in the process. The results don't devalue Vermeer, but they do exalt Jenison's spirit of exploration.

Rated PG-13 for some strong language. One hour, 20 minutes.


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