Tulip Fever and all the images you see in this review are owned by The Weinstein Company
Directed by Justin Chadwick
Now THESE are the movies I live for! What makes a good or bad movie even better is if there’s a good story behind it, and this looks like a disaster waiting to happen; what with its troubled production (it’s earliest incarnation was supposed to be filmed in 2004) and the fact that it’s been sitting on Harvey Weinstein’s shelf for almost three years now. Not only that, the premise itself sounds completely absurd (a steamy period romance AND ALSO the explosion of the Dutch tulip market) and the trailers made it look like a muddled mess; probably due to that whole “sitting around for three years” thing. Sometimes a film can rise above a nightmarish film shoot with films like Apocalypse now and even The Shining being great examples of that (even if Shelly Duvall’s treatment on set was pretty freaking grotesque), but other times we get stuff like Waterworld, The Super Mario Bros Movie, or even Food Fight. Does this film manage to come out of all this turmoil as an intact and extremely entertaining film, or should they have never bothered dusting this off in the first place? Let’s find out!!
The movie follows Sophia (Alicia Vikander) who’s agreed to marry Cornellis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz) in exchange for her younger sister getting a free trip to American and her getting out of the orphanage. All she has to do is sire him an heir and live a happy domesticated life; provided the dude who more or less bought her doesn’t get bored and throw her out on the streets. Still, even if a baby would have kept him from doing such a thing (at least not right away) she seems completely unable to get pregnant which puts a strain on their “relationship” which I guess you can call it. In walks Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan) who is painting a portrait for them but manages to fall madly in love with Sophia who eventually reciprocates his feelings. After more than a few bangings behind Sandvoort’s back, trouble starts to brew when Sophia’s maid Maria (Holiday Grainger) gets married and the father (Jack O’Connell) disappears due to some contrived misunderstanding. Now her being pregnant and unmarried is a problem while Sophia being NOT pregnant is a problem as well. I wonder if the two things could somehow come together to come up with a solution! Oh and there’s a Tulip Market bubble that’s going on in the background that I’m sure means something important. Will Sophia be able to give Sandvoort what he wants while also finding a way to escape his clutches? What will happen to their brilliant plan if the REAL father comes back at the WORST POSSIBLE TIME? Are we SURE that Dane Dehaan isn’t just playing Valerian again and this is one of his Time Travel stories?
This isn’t a GREAT film, but I had a decent amount of fun with it. It certainly isn’t the disaster that being shelved for so long would indicate, but then so was Kidnap and I enjoyed that quite a bit. It’s odd in a lot of ways from the film’s use of humor to its very slipshod story and chaotic editing (the biggest evidence of this being a movie that spent two years in post-production), but it’s still not all that memorable and honestly could have USED a bit more gutsy buffoonery or even leaned further into its sleazy concept. As it stands, it manages to scrape by on decent performances and a few inspired moments but it can’t manage to get any further than that which is a shame considering what this could have been if it wasn’t so mundane in its ineptitude.
It’s hard to pinpoint a core issue with this film, but if I had to pick one it would be polish. This movie feels like it’s only about eighty percent finished and could have used another pass on… well, EVERYTHING! The acting is fine from all the actors, with special props to Christoph Waltz who’s more than willing to just humiliate himself throughout this, but motivations remain muddled throughout and character actions feel like the worst combination of inexplicable and plot convenient. To a certain extent I DO get the reliance on WORST CASE SCENARIO TWISTS OF FATE as that’s something that pops up quite often in period dramas like this, but when a character’s poor decision causes an avalanche of completely avoidable consequences, you REALLY have to buy that poor decision or else you’re left with a story that’s resting on a very shaky foundation and therefore incredibly hard to go along with. Jack O’Connell gets the worst of hit here as his entire existence is to keep the plot moving; whether it’s his damn good luck in finance, his absolutely poor luck that booted him out of the movie for over an hour, and the contrivance of him coming back at EXACTLY the right time for it to set off the biggest drama bomb imaginable. What it leaves us with is less a movie where the actors inhabit believable and layered characters and more like a star studded production of a Shakespeare wannabe where the only memorable thing is just who they got to be in it.
If we try to ignore the contrivance of every aspect of the story, from Jack O’Connell’s existence as a plot device to the barely established romance between Dane DeHaan and Alicia Vikander, there is a decent movie here once we get to the nitty gritty of what it’s ultimately about; namely a big con game to get Sophia out of the Sandvoort house while causing as little damage as possible. Okay, it’s ALSO about the tulip market which apparently was a THING in The Netherlands during the 1630s, but we’ll get to that soon enough. The story about Sophia trying to escape her buffoonish yet no less despicable capturer is an interesting one and it even lends itself to some rather comedic moments; mostly through how they try to convince Sir Sandvoort that she’s actually pregnant which includes pretending to vomit and a creepy doctor who’s in on the scheme. Most of this takes place in the second act which is easily the most watchable as the first act has to set up the ridiculous scenario that allows all this to take place and the ending leaves SO much to be desired, but in that sweet spot right in the middle there’s a halfway decent and enjoyable farce going on that’s in on the joke to a certain extent but is still earnest enough to hold my interest with the odd choice it makes that it commits to with absolute conviction.
Other than a somewhat interesting through line from which the rest of the movie revolves around, it’s sadly a rather dull and shoddy affair. Everything about the Tulip Market, which is at least a third if not a full half of this movie, never sold itself as something interesting in its own right and feels like a plot convenience machine at best; throwing money around to certain characters JUST at the time they could use a windfall. There’s an art to making esoteric and downright boring subject matter interesting which is what films like The Big Short, The Wolf of Wall Street, and even the underwhelming Gold, manage to do and are better films for it. The scenes regarding the Tulip Market just feel perfunctory and aren’t given enough time or engaging moments to truly sell the audience on its hypnotic spell that drove people to the brink of madness. It’s just THERE taking up space in a romance film that really could have used that time to flesh out its main characters and their love affair. Come to think of it, THAT part of the movie as well feels rather perfunctory as I’m still not sure what Sophia saw in Jan Van Loos, or how ANYTHING that we know about her and what she believes in would lead to making the decision to be with him. You’d think after so much time with the damn film after it was finished filming that someone would have realized how much of a drain the Tulip Market stuff was on the rest of the movie; though I guess you can’t cut it down TOO much or you wouldn’t even be able to use the title.
Now I’d have been able to tolerate all of that and STILL recommend this movie to a certain extent if it wasn’t for the ending which is the crappy capstone on a film that was barely getting by. It’s the point in the movie where all the contrivances on which we’ve based this entire story on collapse in on themselves in spectacular fashion and we end up with one of the more ham fisted endings out there that has rather distasteful ideas of morality and what constitutes a good ending. I haven’t really brought this up, but it’s VERY obvious that Chrstoph Waltz in this movie is a HORRIFICALLY despicable character considering how he treats his supposed wife in this, yet the movie doesn’t do a good enough job of getting this across; twisting what should be a truly misogynistic monster into a foolish caricature. The dude BUYS her from a freaking orphanage for the sole purpose of pumping out a baby, yet the movie portrays this less like a hostage situation and more like an unhappy marriage; something that the trailers did a FAR better job of if you managed to see any of those in the last few years. By the end of the movie… well I won’t spoil it, but the movie really doesn’t seem to have any real animosity TOWARDS Waltz’s character which leads me to believe the filmmakers didn’t really understand the kind of character they were dealing with. That’s not even getting into how Sophia’s story ends, but then that would be giving too much away, though I WILL say that while her ending is somewhat expected for a movie like this it feels out of place when contrasted with the light touch they use for Mr. Sandvoort at the end.
I remember having A LOT of contradictory thoughts while watching this, even to the point of calling this a So Bad Its Good movie, but by the end of it and ESPECIALLY by the time I’m writing this, I just couldn’t bring myself to think much on it as the memories are already starting to fade away into a big cloud of Meh from which no mediocre movie can escape. No, it’s not really worth seeing and especially not in theaters. It MIGHT be worth checking out once it hits home release for the scenes that do work as well as its stranger moments that are peppered throughout, but there’s nothing here that is the best work of anyone involved and you’re much better of checking out THOSE films instead. Then again, it’s also not anyone’s WORST work either (*cough* Legend of Tarzan *cough*) so… I guess if you want a completely neutral experience… go for it? Meh, whatever.