As Vincent van Gogh, the young British actor Tim Roth gives a quietly seething performance. His Van Gogh is like a walking soul; expressions of pleasure and irritation dance across his face so casually that it's as if he were a man without censors. Roth is short, with glowering eyes and a bad haircut. He looks so much like the Van Gogh of the self-portraits that the resemblance is a little eerie. Yet it's more than a matter of physiognomy. This is one of the rare portrayals of an artist in which every bit of melodramatic glamour has been scraped off.
Roth's Vincent is a sublimation case, a repressed homosexual who jokes about his impotence with women. At the same time, you can see where all that energy goes it's there in his insatiable stare, in his short-fuse personality, and in his paintings, which are like eruptions of the life force. When Vincent, who can barely get anyone to look at his work, goes crazy with frustration and slices off his earlobe, he doesn't just seem deranged; the hysterical gesture completes him except for his paintings, it's the fullest expression of his implosive temperament. Vincent is a sensitive soul, all right, but he's also a cocky little s.o.b. who cajoles and guilt-trips his brother Theo (Paul Rhys) into supporting him. His sneer the lips pulled back haughtily to reveal blackened, yellowish teeth tells you that he knows he's being manipulative. Yet he feels no guilt, just entitlement. Vincent & Theo is a portrait of the artist as a young vampire, and Roth's performance has a febrile audacity. Unfortunately, his Vincent is a character in search of a movie.
You certainly couldn't accuse Robert Altman of not attempting to rescue his own career. Ever since he peaked, in 1975, with Nashville (arguably the greatest American film of the past two decades), this incomparable director has been struggling to get back on his feet adapting plays, staging operas, collaborating with Garry Trudeau on the political-satire miniseries Tanner '88. And there have been occasional triumphs, such as the Richard Nixon psychodrama Secret Honor (1984). Yet the sad truth is that Altman seems to have lost his sense of film rhythm. That, among other things, is what he was a master at distilling the elusive tempos of human experience.
Vincent & Theo is an earnest attempt to demystify the artist-bio genre and bring to it a new, unsentimental reality. The movie, which is essentially plotless, touches on the darkest aspects of Van Gogh's life: his twisted messianic fervor, his madness, and his claustrophobically intense relationship with Theo, who died a mere six months after Vincent took his own life. (This renders the last section of the movie oddly similar to David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers.)
Much of the acting is quite fine. Wladimir Yordanoff plays Paul Gauguin as an earthy, gutsy bourgeois, and Rhys' Theo, always flashing a nervous smile, matches up with Vincent in subtle, subterranean ways. He's like the delicate ego to Vincent's obsessive id together, they make a whole person. Yet the incidents, as shaped by Altman, don't have enough dramatic weight. Vincent & Theo looks and feels like a half-baked PBS drama, and at two hours and 20 minutes the movie is hopelessly plodding. Still, see it for Roth, whose warts-and-all portrait of Van Gogh is an offbeat triumph. B-