Some of the best documentaries come not from revelations made before the camera starts rolling, but from subjects that the filmmaker just finds interesting. Think of the great docs held in high-regard: Hoop Dreams follow a pair of young basketball players before college and the pros ever come into the picture; Roger & Me was Michael Moore’s attempt to find out why General Motors decided to destroy his hometown; and the list goes on.
With Tim’s Vermeer, filmmakers Penn & Teller (yes, the magicians) focus the camera’s lens on their friend Tim Jenison, a Texas inventor fascinated by one of the great mysteries in art history: how 17th-century Dutch Master Johannes Vermeer was able to paint masterpieces that were near-photorealistic, 150 years before the invention of the photograph?
Tim has followed his fascination with various subjects into a pretty comfortable lifestyle, with his inventions bringing millions of dollars. In his attempts to recapture the exact conditions in which Vermeer worked, he spends countless dollars on studying and building work spaces of exacting detail; calling on his family and friends to pose for hours at a time; and even manages to finagle a private showing of the Vermeer inside the Queen’s private collection at Buckingham Palace.
While Tim’s story is fairly interesting, one wonders how much more interesting it would be with a veteran storyteller behind the camera. While the magical duo of Penn & Teller has charisma to spare on stage, here they fail their friend in bringing his story to the screen. Even at a short running time of 80 minutes, it plods along at points, making one wonder if it would have worked better as a short doc all along.