If you’re an honest, hard-working painter who just can’t break into the art world, it’s probably because you’re a boring person. People want their artists to suffer. The stereotype made famous by Van Gogh, and beaten to death by the media ever since, is the underlying ethos in the premise of P.J. Posner’s goofy 2001 film The Next Big Thing.
Gus Bishop (Chris Eigeman) is a struggling artist who pays the bills doing clerical work of an unspecified nature. His generically pleasant paintings would feel at home in a hospital waiting room, and like most of us who pass such artworks en route to getting our flu shots, the art world doesn’t even notice them.
Things change when a petty thief named Deech Scumble (Jamie Harris) breaks into Gus’s apartment and steals one of his canvases. Deech pawns it off on his landlord with a made-up back-story about the mysterious and reclusive artist, a drug addict and incest survivor named “Geoffrey Buonardi” who also served in Vietnam. The landlord then sells it to his friend’s daughter’s gallery, adding that Buonardi’s family was killed by a tornado that ripped through his trailer park, and literally overnight, the art world is buzzing with intrigue.
Deech entangles Gus in a “get rich quick” scheme to sell more of his paintings under this false identity, convincing him that he doesn’t have what it takes to make it in the art world by himself. “You’re not gay, you’re not a junkie, you don’t paint with your teeth,” Deech says. “You’re a middle-class white kid from New Brunswick, New Jersey—zero sex appeal.”
The scam works, and Deech positions himself as Buonardi’s exclusive representative, handling all of his business transactions with galleries and the press so no one ever sees him (why do people think artists have reps?). It isn’t long before an undercover cop (Mike Starr) tracks them down after being hired by an obsessed collector, but he ends up extorting a cut of the profit from them. The three form an unlikely team, and eventually Buonardi’s work is sought after by the Whitley (yes, Whitley) Museum for its upcoming Biennial.
We’re meant to be rooting for Gus through all of this – he just wants to make a living from his art, and it seems the only way to do that is by working the system. But there is nothing to like about him because he is so boring (as the plot requires). He is as humorless as his art, neither of which makes for compelling cinema.
Having once been rejected by the art world, he is a reluctant “everyman.” Looking in from the outside, he condemns it for its duplicity and pretentiousness, jealous of his own alter-ego, and uses this to justify his crime. After Buonardi’s colossal success, Gus finally gets fed up with his role in a corrupt system and exposes himself as a fraud. By doing so, he also reveals the hypocrisy of the art world that fell for his deception.
Nearly every art world character in the film is a clown, carrying on melodramatically with an air of silly entitlement. Turtleneck-wearing arts administrators throw around meaningless artspeak in a boardroom– “He’s an anti-positivist!” “He’s a trans-realist!” while catty dealers and collectors trip over themselves trying to get their piece of the glory. The exception is an art critic named Kate Crowley (Connie Britton) whom Gus falls in love with because she writes glowing reviews of his work (and she’s pretty).
The Next Big Thing wants to operate as a cultural commentary (before deciding to become a rom-com in its last act). But it’s too unambiguous in its moral position to hold any real depth or complexity, and the corny performances make light of any serious critique it might offer. One wonders who the audience for such a film might be when all that’s left is a string of obvious gags about an easy target that’s too specialized to attract mainstream interest.