A film review by Craig J. Koban December 6, 2017

TULIP FEVER j
 

2017, R, 107 mins.

 

Alicia Vikander as Sophia Sandvoort  /  Dane DeHaan as Jan Van Loos  /  Zach Galifianakis as Gerrit  /  Judi Dench as The Abbess of St. Ursula  /  Christoph Waltz as Cornelis Sandvoort  /  Jack O'Connell as William  /  Holliday Grainger as Maria  /  Matthew Morrison as Mattheus  /  Cara Delevingne as Annetje  /  Tom Hollander as Dr. Sorgh

Directed by Justin Chadwick  /  Written by Deborah Moggach and Tom Stoppard, based on Moggach's novel

Very few period dramas featuring Academy Award winners both in front of and behind the camera are as criminally dull and amateurishly constructed as TULIP FEVER.  

This laughably wrongheaded film stars the likes of Oscar winners Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, and Judi Dench and is written by Tom Stoppard (who won a Best Screenplay Oscar for SHAKESPEARE IN LOVE decades ago) and finds very few ways to properly harness their not so inconsiderable talents.  TULIP FEVER is almost head shakingly nonsensical throughout its endurance testing 107 minutes, mostly because it involves (in no particular order), forbidden romance, a subplot involving someone faking pregnancy for months, and, yes, the tulip trade in 17th Century Amsterdam.  It also has scenes of Vikander masturbating Waltz, the former whose character refers to his penis as his "little soldier" during said incident. 

Staring open mouthed and aghast at this film - based on the novel of the same name by Deborah Moggach - as it listlessly lingered on the screen will probably be a common reaction for most moviegoers, seeing as it has gone through the ringer of production and release hell.  Originally set to be filmed in 2004 with Jude Law and Keira Knightley for director John Madden and producer Steven Spielberg, TULIP FEVER went into limbo until director Justin Chadwick took a crack at it with the aforementioned cast.  Principal photography commenced nearly three years ago with an original release of November 2015, which got bumped to July of 2016...and then got bumped to February of 2017...and then to August...and finally to September.  Release date shuffling is usually the qualitative kiss of death for most movies, and TULIP FEVER is positively no exception in this regard; this film is barely ready for prime time theatrical consumption in its current form.   

 

 

I guess if one were going to essentially describe this infinitely messy and undisciplined film then I would relay that it's ostensibly about an Amsterdam based painter in the 17th Century that falls in love with a married woman whose portrait he's been hired to paint.  That's...pretty much it.  The woman in question is Sophia (the luminous and talented Vikander, looking awkwardly confused here throughout), who's married to a ridiculously rich and ridiculously self centered merchant named Cornelis (Waltz, preposterously and distractingly hammy it up).  Cornelis lusts for an heir to his affluent empire, but multiple attempts to impregnate Sophia are failures, leaving her feeling violated on a nightly basis by a man she doesn't love while also feeling sexually repressed at the same time.  Alas, fate steps in with a young, handsome, and penniless painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan, never once feeling plausible in period garb or via his questionably region free accent), who Cornelis hires to paint an extravagant portrait of his wife.  Predictably, both Sophia and Jan are driven to one another and engage in passionate love making while - yup - keeping it all a secret from you know who. 

Oh yeah...there are subplots involving the tulip trade market in Amsterdam, which have become a very hot commodity that various characters throughout the film - in one convoluted form or another that lacks embellishment - manage to get caught up in.  Then there's another story arc involving Sophia's only friend in the world in Maria (Holliday Granger), the family maid that has taken to her own sexual fling with a local fishmonger named Willem (Jack O'Connell), a relationship that eventually intersects with Sophia and Jan's and unavoidably leads to heartache.  Then there's some truly baffling cameos, like Tom Hollander playing an alarmingly creepy doctor that initially tries to help Sophia conceive, only later assisting her in faking a pregnancy to her husband.  Judi Dench, as mentioned, also appears as a nun that once looked after Sophia at the orphanage that she was raised in that perhaps acts more self-deprecatingly serious than anyone else in the cast.  Hell, even Zach Galifianakis shows up as Jan's sidekick, whose only defining characteristics are that (a) he's drunk a lot and (b) he's supposed to be funny...or maybe Galifianakis was just drunk while making TULIP FEVER, which is understandable in retrospect. 

Very little, if anything, holds cohesively together in this film, which makes it come off as one of those haphazardly rushed productions that could have easily benefited from multiple re-writes of the script by Stoppard and perhaps a longer running time to make all of this divergent and seemingly incongruent material flow within one another.  Even when it appears that TULIP FEVER may indeed be heading down a straight and proper path, it takes disastrous and frankly inane plot detours and twists that have you thinking that a more preferable turn of events would have been for any of these hapless characters to awaken in a cold sweat to declare that everything that transpired before was all a bad dream.  The film could have achieved a level of enjoyable camp if it didn't take itself so damn seriously, as the narrative finally and mightily collapses under the weight of its own unintentional stillness the whole enterprise becomes dramatically inert.   

I will say this, thought: TULIP FEVER looks pretty.  Damn pretty.  As a lush and opulent period piece with handsome production values, costumes, and art direction, the film is reasonably triumphant.  Yet, nearly everything built around its attractive facade is creatively null and void.  Even the presence of multiple great actors can't make the horrible material they're collectively given work.  Vikander physically looks perfect for her role, but her character never develops into a meaningful protagonist worthy of our interest, not to mention that she's badly paired with DeHaan, a good actor when given proper material that's six ways to Sunday an ill fit for this film.  That, and the chemistry that he and Vikander share is borderline comatose.  There's ample skin shown by the pair in their frequent sex scenes, but they're all so passion-free that they don't even elevate TULIP FEVER to the moniker of a cheaply disposable, but agreeable skin flick.  The screenplay does these actors no favors when it gives them such cookie cutter lines like, for example (Jan): You've stolen my heart. (Sophia): No.  You've stolen mine."  Ouch. 

When a film like this doesn't even work as a passable piece of soft core erotica then you know you're in trouble.  I felt pity for all of TULIP FEVER's actors, mostly because they've done memorable and lasting work in many other magnificent films.  I rolled my eyes in stunned disbelief as the end credits rolled by and pondered how this film could be so incalculably dull considering its bounty of talent on board.  Beyond that, I struggled with coming to grips as to what TULIP FEVER was trying to be about?  Is it about star crossed lovers?  Is it a cruel personal tragedy?  Is it a period comedy?  Is it a historical narrative about tulips and the tulip trade?  Logic, energy, pacing, and all meaning has been zapped out of this production in all manners unexplainable.  The only time TULIP FEVER generated any level of lasting creative interest was during a montage featuring Waltz's character and his pre-bedtime habits of taking a piss.  That sequence is done with some semblance of editorial panache.  

The rest of TULIP FEVER regrettably belongs in the toilet.

 

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