Wayne White seems pretty pleased with himself. And judging from Beauty Is Embarrassing, he should be. He was one of the creative geniuses behind Pee Wee's Playhouse, the mind-scrambling 1980s children's TV show. He spends his days building giant puppets and creating his signature paintings: thrift-store landscapes on which he superimposes block-lettered utterances like "I'll smash this painting over your fucking head." He has a supportive, talented wife and two great kids. His parents dote on him.
Moreover, director Neil Berkeley's richly-documented bio reveals that White is fun to be around, a wise-cracking, banjo-playing good-old boy skilled at anything he turns his hand to.
Which is great. Perhaps no cliché is more worn out than the "tormented artist," so good on White for transcending it. In fact, the film implicitly argues that what sustains an artist is not Promethean genius, but a connection to one's roots — which in White's case are distinctly Southern — and a circle of friends, who in White's case are distinctly eccentric. Bolstering that argument is a trove of archival film dating to White's college days, as well as behind-the-scenes footage of his work on the Playhouse and other shows.
But Beauty, perhaps sensing that contentment doesn't make for great cinema, wants it both ways. It wants you to know that White has struggled ... though other than a childhood car accident and a glancingly described nervous breakdown, it's not always clear how. White appears to resent the pretensions of the gallery scene, for example, even though he clearly had little trouble entering it. ("Bang! I'm in the art world, just like that!") The film makes it all look pretty easy.
Whether White leads a charmed life, or merely charmed the filmmakers, isn't clear. Either way, we never hear a disparaging word about him, and there are testaments to his talent from the likes of Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, and Pee Wee himself, Paul Reubens. Meanwhile, the film skirts issues that might uncover some tension, as when we're told Reubens pulled the plug on Playhouse — without being told why.
Ultimately, the message here is, "Do what you love, and the money will follow." Some Art Institute grads would beg to differ, but it's worked for White. And I'm glad: He seems like a good guy, and his story will inspire some viewers to start creating artwork of their own.
Still, this film could almost have been one of White's paintings: an image of a good-looking family, standing outside a nice home ... and superimposed over it, in letters 20 feet high, the words "VANITY PROJECT."