November 19, 1990 12:00 PM

Tim Roth, Paul Rhys

Mamans, don’t let your babies grow up to be artists. That seems to be the subtext of this intriguing, though grim, film about Vincent van Gogh and his brother, Theo.

As Vincent labors away in obscurity, occasionally hitting up his little brother for a loan or nagging that Theo, an art dealer, isn’t selling any of his paintings, it’s impossible to avoid musing about this film’s director, Robert Altman. His stubborn, often perverse and sometimes inspired approach has yielded a range of critical and commercial reaction, from M*A*S*H and Nashville to Popeye and Quintet.

If he’s suggesting a connection between himself and Van Gogh, it’s not presumptuous; he portrays the Dutch painter as a wretched psychotic capable only of spurts of emotion. Roth (The Cook, The Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover) portrays Vincent as disheveled and wallowing in self-pity, leaving little room for sympathy.

As devoted younger brother Theo, Rhys (Little Dorrit) maintains a marvelous dignity, battling syphilis and penury as well as Vincent’s irresponsibility, while trying to forge his own life.

Altman paces the film deliberately, devoting long takes to Roth’s pondering a color, angle or subject. (Yikes! These sunflowers would look good in a bowl!) After a while you can’t wait for Vincent to cut off his ear to spite his face—you take appendage inventory every time he appears onscreen.

Altman and his cinematographer, Jean Lepine, do generate a rich, colorful texture that obviously owes a lot to Van Gogh’s paintings. And they profitably toy with the difficult-to-assimilate idea that such great beauty could have come from a man who was so personally unattractive.

In the moments when that idea pales, Altman and writer Julian (Another Country) Mitchell provide turns on their litany of cynicism. “The world is a bad painting,” says Jean-Pierre Cassel as Dr. Paul Gachet, Van Gogh’s exploitive physician and patron. “God should have destroyed it.” In short, even those who leave before Vincent commits suicide won’t exit whistling “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” (PG-13)

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