Sometimes you can sniff out a film by the character names its creators give it. Boasting a Deech Scumble, Walter Sznitken and Shari Lampkin, The Next Big Thing is just such a film. Writer-filmmaker brothers PJ and Joel Posner (PJ directed) show they know a few things about New York's art market and its movers, shakers and painters, but not enough about what makes a film work for audiences. Gallery patrons and others who follow the art scene will chuckle here and there, but others will be staring at an empty canvas.

The film amounts to a cute idea clumsily executed. Struggling painter Gus Bishop (Chris Eigeman) is a magnet for problems. His paintings don't sell, he loses his job, his girlfriend Shari obnoxiously pushes for an expensive wedding, and Deech Scumble (Jamie Harris) breaks into his loft, stripping the place. When Deech uses one of Gus' canvases to pay off three months' back rent and his landlord in turn sells the painting for a tidy sum, Deech knows he's onto something. Since apparently there really exists a market for Gus' work, he lures Gus into a scheme to sell his paintings.

Also getting in on the action is shady private eye Walter Sznitken (Mike Starr), hired by rich art patrons to find the mysterious painter with the initials GB. The trio invents and Deech promotes a reclusive artist exotically named Geoff Buonardi (thus maintaining the GB initials), whom the art crowd--critics, gallery owners, patrons--and media can't get enough of.

As happens in stories like these, ace art critic Kate Crowley (Connie Britton) falls madly for Buonardi's work. She meets Gus and they click, but she doesn't know he's Buonardi. And Gus, as formula dictates, must keep that secret--at least until the painting-by-numbers plot resolves itself.

Whether the lion's share of the blame for the largely broad performances rests with the director, the writers or the actors themselves is moot. Eigeman, known for his memorable roles in three wonderful Whit Stillman films, comes through best, as he applies some welcome restraint to his interpretation of the put-upon artist. Otherwise, the female characters, with the exception of Britton, tend toward vulgar and the men register at various degrees of obnoxiousness.

Technically, The Next Big Thing looks fine, although the filmmakers have a curious fascination for extreme overhead shots and Gus' oeuvre doesn't look worth the wood that holds the canvases. But there are inside jokes, name-dropping and fun jabs at the fickle world of modern art that certain audiences may spark to. And the participation of Farley Granger as a seasoned collector adds some nostalgic spice.

--Doris Toumarkine