Review: 'Tulip Fever', A Wilted Costume Drama Not Worth The Wait

The devilish side of me, the side that likes to watch skateboarders crotch themselves on handrails, has been eagerly awaiting the release of Tulip Fever. Turns out I was waiting for a long ass time. The star-studded period drama played at Cannes back in 2015 and received the requisite awards season date soon after. Then...nothing. It was bumped into summer 2016, then into 2017,  the early "holy crap what is this movie we've got" part of the year, then this past August, and finally to now. It was so long ago when this whole thing started in 2013 that most of its cast were rising stars or relative unknowns.

In the final couple of weeks, The Weinstein Company was desperate and began an earnest, rather pathetic campaign to push the film's high nudity content. There is indeed nudity. About 10 seconds of it. You'll probably sleep through it.

Tulip Fever is here and it's about as boring as a movie about tulips probably ought to be. Even with a cast that features, check this out: Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Christoph Waltz, Holliday Grainger, Cara Delevingne, Jack O'Connell, Zach Galifianakis, Tom Hollander, and Judi Dench, it withers on the vine and never blooms into a steamy romance. Judi Dench hits people a lot, and somehow it still isn't interesting. The film, penned by the friggin' great Tom Stoppard, appears to have been something he wrote after an overdose of Lunesta. Set in 17th-century Amsterdam, it follows the illicit love affair between Sophia (Vikander) and Jan Van Loos (DeHaan), a poor painter hired to paint her portrait. Once an orphan who knew hard times, Sophia is now a rich woman married to "the Peppercorn King" Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz), although their marriage is a loveless one. He desires a son and heir, which she has been unable to give him, despite loads of unwanted practice, unwanted on her part, anyway. He's quite gung-ho, encouraging his "little soldier" to "fire the cannons."  Yeah, that's a thing that happens.

There's also the story of Sophia's maid, Maria (Grainger), and the fishmonger William (O'Connell) that she's fallen in love with. Both Sophia and Maria desire to leave their current situations and be with the men they desire, but it's not only hard out there for a pimp but it's hard out there for a woman in the 17th century. It's a man's world, and the men are out there engaging in the tulip craze that swept Amsterdam, creating one of the first futures markets in the world. For some reason, the value of tulip bulbs skyrocketed as demand increased, and it simply did not seem to end. As rarer and rarer breeds were discovered, the price continued to boom. Playing the tulip market seemed like a sure thing, which means of course it wasn't at just the wrong time.

There's potential here for a film that combines two of the essential ingredients to a great erotic thriller: sex and money. But it doesn't matter when both are as passion-free as this, and it's only compounded by the multitude of period drama tropes presented in such a soulless fashion. This is the second film this year to try to pass DeHaan off as a romantic lead, the other opposite Delevingne in sci-fi flop Valerian, and he doesn't seem to have chemistry with anybody. There's no heat to Sophia and Jan's trysts, but plenty of them both looking quite bored as he paints her likeness, while Cornelis bumbles around like a cuckholded clown. So little is invested in their affair that we can barely be bothered to do anything but count the frills on her many frocks.  I kept hoping director Justin Chadwick, who also knows period drama having helmed The Other Boleyn Girl, would focus more on Maria and William, whose sexual energy gives the film at least some spark.  Chadwick's a solid director and working with Stoppard he should be able to deliver a movie that does more than look good. There are some fine, colorful, frilly costumes, but isn't that a given at this point?

The plot seems to move at its own weird inertia, where characters who never interact suddenly fall in and out of love at a whim.  Tulip Fever isn't stiff like so many of these costume dramas tend to be, it's just really flat and makes little sense. Why is Zach Galifianakis in this? He plays an idiot friend to Jan and barely has a line until suddenly his drunken antics (I don't even think we knew he was a drunk before) prove extremely crucial to the plot. I had forgotten he was even in the movie until that point, then he shows up and throws what tone there is out of balance. Toss in a couple of fake deaths, a pregnancy scandal, and a tulip auctionhouse that looks like it should be in Gangs of New York, and it's just hard to figure out what Tulip Fever is other than a total snooze.

What Tulip Fever definitely isn't, though, is worth the wait.

Rating: 2 out of 5