An improbable subject has inspired a unique documentary which comes with an unusual pedigree: it was produced by those inventive magicians Penn and Teller, and directed by Teller. It profiles their longtime friend Tim Jenison, whose high-tech inventions have made him a wealthy man…the kind who can indulge his whims. His latest is also his most ambitious: he intends to reproduce Johannes Vermeer’s lifelike 17th century painting “The Music Lesson,” even though he’s never held a paintbrush in his hand.

Jenison inspects Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman with a Lute” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Photo by Shane F. Kelly, © 2013 High Delft Pictures LLC, Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics. Jenison inspects Johannes Vermeer’s “Woman with a Lute” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The inspiration for this bold project is a series of books and essays by art experts, including the redoubtable David Hockney, speculating that Vermeer used primitive optical instruments to achieve the realistic look of his paintings. Jenison proposes to recreate Vermeer’s process—and does. It takes him more than four years to bring his experiment to fruition.

Jenison is obsessive and, to a degree, so is this film. I found myself wearying of the process at a certain point, even though the conclusion is nothing short of extraordinary. The film also makes no pretense of objectivity or arm’s-length distance on the part of the filmmakers and their subject: they are friends, and gratefully used Jenison’s video diary of his daily labors when they weren’t present to document them. Penn Jillette narrates the film and appears casually on camera at various times as he, Teller, and Jenison travel to Amsterdam and London to eyeball original Vermeer canvases and consult with art experts, including Hockney.

Tim’s Vermeer is undeniably fascinating, as we watch a dedicated amateur set his sights on replicating the work of an Old Master. You’ve never seen anything like it before, and if you’re patient, it’s worth following the journey.