Gather ’round. Let me tell you a tale.
In the year 2000, Deborah Moggach wrote a novel. That novel was called Tulip Fever. Based on the true story of the Dutch Tulip Mania, a real and hilarious thing, the novel set a tale of class, lust, and tragedy (apparently) against one of the most truly bizarre economic collapses in European history.
But even before that book came out, it was ready to be a movie. Dreamworks bought it in the proof stage (meaning they knew the idea was primed for lurid prestige) with the eventual intention of direction by John Madden, somewhat hot off Shakespeare in Love, for a film starring Jude Law, Keira Knightley, and Jim Broadbent. This was gonna be a big budget (for the time) production at about 48 million. Remember, it’s Dreamworks, that means this thing once had Spielberg money.
However, in the first of many curses that would befall this project, the British government closed a tax loophole that helped the film’s funding. Production shut down, though not after planting 12,000 tulip bulbs for the film.
More than a decade after that initial attempt, interest remained. After all, Moggach had Hollywood connections (wrote the 2005 Pride and Prejudice and had another novel adapted into The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel).
Then, in about 2013, comes in Harvey Weinstein. A tighter budget, about 25 million, but it still managed to get a fairly deep cast with Alicia Vikander and Dane DeHaan starring and also featuring Oscar winners Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench! He also got a script from Tom Fuckin’ Stoppard and direction from Justin Chadwick, best known for The Other Boleyn Girl. Weinstein actually managed to get the film made and wrapped in 2014.
Which…would normally be the end of that.
After the release of Ex Machina, where Vikander’s jaw-dropper performance made her a huge commodity, Weinstein saw room to get Tulip Fever even more attention. So Tulip Fever was promoted at Cannes and slotted for a November release, up against The Danish Girl, another period prestige piece that would end up winning Vikander her Oscar.
It was then pulled and moved to July 2016 (signaling a lack of awards-season hopes). Then to February 24th, then August 25th, then finally to September 1st to capitalize on a totally empty Labor Day weekend, the only major wide release.
In the meantime, the film became something of a legend. The film was test screened for the first time in November 2014 and recut time and time and time and time again. Critics saw it at multiple stages and began doubt that they ever had and indeed, if the film actually existed. It was even pulled shortly before a WGA screening, only contributing o the legend.
The film industry only became sure of Death, Taxes, and that Tulip Fever would never come out. It took so long that star Dane DeHaan actually managed to shoot a massive space epic with Luc Besson alongside fellow eyebrow-endowed-American Cara Delevingne in the meantime.
Then, on September 1st, the film finally came out. The marketing had shifted from a prestige play to a steamy erotic thriller. Didn’t help the film, which ended up being the centerpiece of the worst holiday weekend since 1998.
So, what happened? Was the film really worth all that fuss?
Well, I tell you the story because it ultimately ends up being more interesting than Tulip Fever itself. This thing is ultimately more interesting as a legendary curio than an actual movie.
It’s not horribly campy enough or horrendously terrible to recommend for a hatewatch. It certainly doesn’t have the prestige to be good or the luridness to be entertaining. It’s just embarrassing for most of the people involved, this stack of moments cut to the bone from years of retooling and attempts to make worthwhile.
The actual story is reasonably bog standard. Set against the Dutch Tulip Mania, Sophia Sandvoort (Alicia Vikander) is an orphan married off to a wealthy Dutch businessman, Cornelis (Christoph Waltz).
Cornelis commissions a painting from artist Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan), who quickly falls in love with Sophia. The two start a torrid affair and get into the tulip market in the hopes of being able to start a new life together.
Perhaps the biggest sin of this movie is its wasting of the backdrop. The Tulip Mania is truly one of history’s weirder incidents and the film seems largely uninterested in any of it besides functioning as a backdrop. Had this film been set in the 90s about Beanie Babies, it’s hard to imagine any appreciable difference, outside of perhaps wearing some stranger costumes.
I get it, it’s a hard thing to make a whole movie about. But when it’s the only notable thing in your movie and you don’t use it, it’s hard to overlook how bland the rest of the story is. You see where this movie tried over and over again to pull something lurid out of this story or even something entertaining and it just ends up in a bizarre tonal mishmash. Part screwball comedy, part sex thriller, yet none of it is compelling. None of this is funny, none of this is erotic.
Much of that is on its leads. Vikander is absolutely fine here, doing great silent work while reading the dialogue about as fine as anyone does in this movie. But Dane DeHaan is not a leading man. His nonexistent charisma and lack of chemistry with Vikander leaves me feeling that had the producers ended up drawing eyebrows on a plank of wood, the effect of having Vikander mime sweet tender love with it would have been functionally the same.
To be fair, DeHaan is really the only bad performance here, just not selling anything. Everyone else is totally fine, not rising past totally fine though. It’s just that they have almost no material to work with. Everything is telegraphed and everything is a slog to get through. No character is given any substance or motivation or anything short of action descriptions, so no drama means anything.
I found myself giggling more often than not, nothing feels appropriately pitched or placed right. It’s just a trainwreck, stacking up bad decision after premature moment. It’s the kind of film that reeks of excessive trimming, cleaving all the connective tissue in the hopes of creating a lean, mean sex movie machine. In the end, they just created a movie that can never live up to the legend surrounding it.