Mundus vult decipi: The world likes to be deceived. In The Next Big Thing, PJ Posner’s first feature, the New York demimonde credulously embraces the paintings of outsider artist Geoff Buonardi, despite never having seen him. Buonardi is a Vietnam vet, an incest survivor, an ex-addict—and a sham. Concocted by petty-thief-turned-manager Deech Scumble (Jamie Harris), the overnight sensation doesn’t exist; his generically abstract canvases are the work of khaki-clad starving artist Gus Bishop (Whit Stillman stalwart Chris Eigeman), who agrees to the scam, a burst of massive fame after years of humbling anonymity.
Art forgery is nearly as old as art itself: In ancient Greece, famous artists were known to sign works by their less renowned peers to help them sell. The concept is simple, even irresistible, but Posner’s dishearteningly unsophisticated treatment itself rings false. Buonardi’s bio isn’t nearly fascinating enough to warrant even cursory attention: An obvious satire on our Jerry Springer-loaded (or perhaps Terry Grossed-out) fixation on the dysfunctional, the film should have had a field day with the creation of its fictitious self-taught artist. (Think Adolf Wölfli or Henry Darger; think saliva artist, or the inmate who wove tiny scenes out of threads extracted from his socks.)
But then, of course, the artwork on view would have to hold the eye; Buonardi/Bishop’s vaguely Midwestern-state-shaped colorfields won’t cut it. Thus The Next Big Thing settles for “glib superficialities” (a charge leveled at a would-be enfant terrible) by poking tiresome fun at nonrepresentational art, as when the “Whitley” Biennial organizers spout meaningless shibboleths (“profoundly nihilistic,” “demonstrably nonexclusive”) while assessing the Buonardi oeuvre. (At least Tom Wolfe, in The Painted Word, was fortified by a fresh spring of outrage.) As always, Eigeman is adept at projecting prepster pique at his static station in life (“I’ve always planned to be a failure anyway,” he confessed in Metropolitan), but with no outlet for his hyperarticulate charm, he spends most of the movie in silence, as if mortified by the shamelessly mugging cast around him.
The genre of stories about the aping of masterpieces is itself graced with masterpieces. Orson Welles’s F for Fake turns the true tale of a charming Modigliani mimic into a fluent meditation on the futility and necessity of art and on his own trompe le monde tendencies, pulling rabbits from his capacious conjurer’s hat until one of them bites, if tenderly, the audience’s ass. William Gaddis’s vast novel The Recognitions contrasts its hero’s lovingly executed Flemish forgeries with a whole universe infected with counterfeits; Russell H. Greenan’s overlooked quasi-mystery, It Happened in Boston?, finds its genius forger merging with insanity until it’s unclear how much has been total delusion. Just as the investigation of imitations has the salutary effect of perpetuating questions of truth and beauty, the contemplation of botched movies like The Next Big Thing could be seen as an opportunity to refine one’s own aesthetics.