February 28, 2014 at 8:14 am

Review: 'Tims Vermeer' is a study in obsession that turns into magic

Tim Jenison works to prove his theory about Vermeer's art in 'Tim's Vermeer.' (Sony Pictures Classics)

Tim Jenison is a Texas inventor who believes he may have discovered something crucial about the technique a painter used more than 300 years ago.

Wow. Riveting.

Well, actually, it pretty much is as presented in “Tim’s Vermeer,” an illuminating documentary as much about obsession as perception. The length Jenison goes to prove his point — a point, let’s face it, that few people really care about — defies all logic and yet at the same time serves as inspiring.

Here’s the deal: Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) is a revered Dutch painter known for both his precision and a (previously) inexplicable command of light. Jenison, who among other things, works with computer graphics, thinks Vermeer used mirrors to duplicate images and painted right along the mirror’s edge to mimic an image exactly.

OK, you have to see it, but the process makes sense. So much so that Jenison, who has never painted, is able to reproduce a photograph perfectly early on in the film. He shows that reproduction to artists ranging from Martin Mull to David Hockney, explaining his theory about Vermeer, and everybody’s impressed.

And then Jenison goes big. He builds a reproduction of Vermeer’s home studio, outfits it with precise copies of the furniture and artifacts from one of Vermeer’s paintings — he makes all this stuff himself — and sets out to paint his own version of the Vermeer to prove that the mirror technique he’s discovered is what the master must have used centuries ago.

This all takes years to accomplish. But the result, the effort, the mad preoccupation, are all minor wonders to behold.

“Tim’s Vermeer” is spryly directed by Teller, the silent half of the illusion duo Penn & Teller, and it’s narrated by Penn Jillette, the act’s famed debunker of hype and hoopla, a longtime friend of Jenison’s. In a way, they are shining light on real acts of magic — the magic of invention and the magic of discovery.

“Tim’s Vermeer” is an actual rabbit being pulled out of a hat. And the result is unexpectedly dazzling.

'Tim's Vermeer'


Rated PG-13 for some strong language

Running time: 80 minutes


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