NEW YORK — VAN GOGH is everywhere these days. There was a wonderful documentary about him, called ``Vincent,'' just a few seasons back. ``Dreams,'' by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, has a colorful episode about him, in which he's played by Martin Scorsese, the gifted American director. Milos Forman, who directed ``Amadeus'' and ``Ragtime,'' is making a Van Gogh movie now, and don't forget the all-time-classic Van Gogh picture, ``Lust for Life,'' which gave Kirk Douglas his most famous role. The latest Van Gogh film to arrive, ``Vincent & Theo,'' delivers two Van Goghs for the price of one ticket. Vincent, of course, is the artist - mad, impossible, brilliant. Theo is his long-suffering brother, an art dealer who believes in Vincent's genius but has no idea how to sell his unorthodox paintings to a skeptical world. The movie follows both of them through the familiar landscape of Vincent's life, culminating with his tragic suicide.
Why is Van Gogh such a popular movie subject nowadays? One answer must be the enduring impact of his art, which was scorned when it was new but is now almost universally regarded as having the ring of full-fledged genius. Less admirable, but also responsible is the mystique generated by the high prices his works command on today's market. Art and money is always a potent combination at the box office.
``Vincent & Theo'' takes on added interest because Robert Altman directed it. He was one of the most important American filmmakers during the 1970s, using wide-screen photography and dense, complicated sound tracks to create a powerful new movie language that found its voice in such triumphs as ``MASH'' and ``Nashville,'' among many others. His career has been in the doldrums for years now; during the '80s he spent most of his time adapting stage plays like ``Streamers'' and ``Beyond Therapy'' into second-rate movies. Given his talent and track record, he's long been ripe for a comeback. I hoped ``Vincent & Theo'' would be it.
Unfortunately, the new picture doesn't quite work. It has sharp performances in the title roles, by British actors Tim Roth and Paul Rhys, and its color scheme is so pungent I'm sure the real Van Gogh would applaud it. But it doesn't have the wide-ranging visual imagination of Mr. Altman's best work - perhaps because the real-life subject matter hemmed in his visionary, highly intuitive approach. Then too, Altman doesn't suggest a convincing reason why yet another look at Van Gogh's life is necessary. The film's biggest mystery isn't the artist's madness, but why we should journey through his story for the umpteenth time.
Van Gogh's greatness remains alive and well in museums, books, and the imaginations of admirers everywhere. I'm afraid ``Vincent & Theo'' doesn't add much to his legacy. What it does accomplish, though, is to bring Altman a step closer to the major achievement that's surely germinating in his creative mind. He is the second important director of the '70s to attempt a comeback in the past few weeks - the other being Peter Bognadovich, whose ``Texasville'' opened recently. ``Vincent & Theo'' is a big step below such Altman achievements as ``Brewster McCloud'' and ``A Wedding,'' but it shows that his energy and ambition are still intact, just waiting for the right opportunity. Here's hoping it arrives soon.