After sitting on a shelf somewhere in the Weinsteins’ offices for years, ‘Tulip Fever’ is finally getting unceremoniously dumped onto screens this weekend. Weirdly enough, a number of the actors became rather famous in the interim. You’d think that would mean that the movie is an unqualified failure that deeply embarrassed the studio, but it’s just kind of a mediocre mess.
Alicia Vikander stars as Sophia, a young woman who married the kindly and wealthy Cornelis (Christoph Waltz) for comfort in 17th Century Amsterdam. He was widowed and wants another child, but she can’t seem to get pregnant. In the midst of all that, Cornelis hires the soon-to-be-famous artist Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan) to paint a portrait of the couple. In the middle of the work, the painter and his lady subject fall in love. You might expect that she’d become pregnant with a love child to create strife, but no. Instead, house servant Maria (Holliday Granger) gets pregnant and her lover disappears. It’s decided that the two women will pull off an elaborate ruse to trick Cornelis into thinking that Sophia is pregnant while Maria hides her growing belly so that the kid can grow up in luxury and Cornelis can get the child he desperately wants. There’s also a plan for Sophia to fake her death in childbirth and run off with her artist lover. Plus, all this takes place over the historical backdrop of a wild obsession with selling tulips for vast sums of money. And I haven’t even mentioned the nun played by Judi Dench, the thief played by Cara Delevingne, or the drunk played by Zach Galifianakis. Obviously, they have semi-substantial roles as well.
As you may have gathered, ‘Tulip Fever’ has way too much going on while ultimately being about nothing. Based on a novel by Deborah Moggach, the lush period dramedy clearly at one time was layered with interconnected subplots and a vast swarm of characters with the tulip fever of the title serving as some sort of connecting metaphor. Whatever was initially intended got lost in the years of editing to cut the movie down to just under two hours. Now the film seems to be about everything and nothing all at once. Too many themes and characters compete for attention with little payoff. All that’s left are the romantic and comedic aspects of Tom Stoppard’s adaptation, and that classically entertaining material rarely registers since the sloppy storytelling prevents any significant emotional investment.
Given the hatchet editing and rushed release, it’s amazing to see the expensive and star-packed nature of the final product. The period settings and costumes are sumptuous, with a jittery camera racing around to capture everything in lush detail. Every role is stacked with a recognizable performer either mugging for comedy or pining for love. Some register, like Vikander’s aching pain and Waltz’s sly cluelessness. Others inexplicably disappear and reappear, like Zach Galifianakis or Judi Dench. Surely, director Justin Chadwick had a reason to include those high profile faces, but they’re distracting cameos in a flurry of historical details, raunchy farce, and romantic pining. There are many signifiers of how this could have been a prime Weinstein Oscar bait movie in the ‘Shakespeare in Love’ mode, but they’re mostly lost in the furiously edited rush to the finish line.
It’s tough to dismiss ‘Tulip Fever’ as garbage or hail it as a lost masterpiece given what remains of whatever the film was supposed to be. The heavily edited compromise rushes through a dense plot and is at least never boring. It’s just also not particularly compelling either, and chances are that it wasn’t particularly compelling to begin with, just longer and more coherent. What remains are a collection of period picture beauty shots and movie stars signifying nothing. The film is destined to disappear into obscurity much faster than it was rescued from collecting dust on a shelf.