And now to try to jot down the convoluted premise of “Tulip Fever,” a Herculean task if there was ever one. So, this lady by the name of Sophia (Alicia Vikander), living in the 17th century in Denmark, has been sold as a wife to Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). Cornelis is obsessed with bearing a son after he lost his wife and two children to differing tragic circumstances. One day, Cornelis calls upon the services of a painter to paint a portrait of himself and his wife. The artist is a young man named Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan) and after a few painting sessions, he and Sophia, unbeknownst to Cornelis, quickly fall in love.
Also tossed into the storytelling mix is the maid who works for Cornelis and Sophia, Maria (Holliday Grainger), who is good friends (sort of) with Sophia. Maria is having her own secretive romantic affair that gets disrupted when her significant other is abruptly forced into the Navy just as she realizes she’s pregnant with her own child. Running throughout the story is a period accurate societal fixation on betting on the tulip market, with entire fortunes being made on this financially lucrative market centered entirely on flowers. The forbidden romance between Sophia and Jan Van Loos manages to intertwine itself heavily into these two plot elements.
Yes sir, there is a lot going on in “Tulip Fever,” but unfortunately, this is one of those movies that tries to accomplish so much that it ends up coming up empty on all counts. None of the many movies “Tulip Fever” tries to become ever coalesce into something entertaining. For instance, as a period piece drama, it’s a total snooze because the characters are never given even the barest amount of dimensions as people. I seriously couldn’t describe the personality or disposition of our protagonists Sophia or Jan Van Loos in any capacity even if you held a gun to my head — they’re that boring and none of the numerous supporting characters fare any better in terms of being richly detailed or even just entertaining individuals.
Meanwhile, in terms of working as the steamy romantic period piece feature its marketing campaign wants to present it as (in reality, only one sequence beyond the first few minutes is all that romantically ribald), it’s also hindered by the poorly sketched characters, though the tin-eared dialogue may be the biggest hindrance to any of the romantic stuff working properly as an attempt to capture the speaking patterns of people in this specific era (ala the vastly superior Crimson Peak) does not work at all in execution as the vernacular spoken by the characters in Tulip Fever just makes this sound either portentous or clunky. Clearly, neither of those adjectives are what great romantic dialogue are supposed to be made out of.
But does “Tulip Fever” at least work as an examination of the hugely popular tulip market in the 17th century? Here, too, this Justin Chadwick directed motion picture stumbles as the story is never able to make the widespread obsession all that interesting. Its depiction of rampant bidding on tulips is more confusing than anything else and there’s no real humanity to ground such a conceptually stylized activity. It’s also odd how Tulip Fever as a movie appears to repeatedly forget about the very existence of tulips for long stretches of its screentime which just makes the recurring re-emergence of tulip bidding as a crucial plot element all the more bizarre.
The only place where Tulip Fever finds any sort of success is in its costume design by Michael O’Connor, the period era appropriate attire adorned by the various characters do look quite well-made, but otherwise, Tulip Fever is an astonishingly confused movie devoid of all that much in the way of merit. It’s such a strange creation, one whose creative audacity to try to wring a steamy romantic thriller in the midst of 17th century Denmark and its tulip fixation feels like it could have resulted in at least a fascinating misfire. Aside from a handful of “What was that?” moments, like Zach Galifianakis (who swaggers around with a weak European accent for minimal amounts of screentime) being petrified of geese, Tulip Fever just feels laughably empty.
Douglas Laman is a film critic,who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College, hangs out with friends and… watches movies. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com