It’s almost too easy to examine Tulip Fever for the smudgy fingerprints of producer Harvey Weinstein, whose Weinstein Company is finally releasing it after over a year of delays. It’s based on a bestselling historical novel, adapted by Tom Stoppard (the acclaimed playwright who Weinstein doubtless thinks of as Shakespeare In Love’s Tom Stoppard), and its cast is dotted with Weinstein mainstays (Christoph Waltz, Judi Dench) alongside Oscar winner Alicia Vikander and an eclectic who’s-who (or perhaps more of a who’s-wha?) that features both leads of Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, as well as Zach Galifianakis. Even if the movie hadn’t been bounced around the release schedule, its opening stretch bares the marks of post-production tinkering: dime-novel narration up front, scenes that feel truncated, abrupt time-jumps, and the occasional appearance of ADR.
This hasty exposition crunch is how the movie introduces Sophia (Vikander), its heroine and part-time narrator, who escapes poverty via a swift, vaguely reluctant marriage to the wealthy “king of peppercorns,” Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz). Sophia’s primary position in the Sandvoort household is to bear her husband a son, but when Cornelis commissions a portrait from painter Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), the artist and the frustrated wife begin a secret affair. Sophia also becomes fast frenemies with her servant Maria (Holliday Grainger), who is in the midst of courtship with fishmonger Willem (Jack O’Connell). The title comes from the movie’s backdrop of 17th-century tulip mania, during which the introduction of tulips to Europe resulted in wild and inflated speculation in the buying and selling of their bulbs. Playing the tulip market becomes the possible solution to Sophia, Jan, and Maria’s various problems. It is, to coin a cliché, a dangerous game.
With plot elements including but not limited to a lecherous doctor, a criss-crossed pregnancy scam, a lusty fishmonger, naval conscription, and repeated mistaken identity based entirely on a single cloak, it’s often difficult to tell whether Tulip Fever is supposed to be soap or farce (probably neither, but there is just enough genuine comic relief amidst the sudsy absurdity to confuse the issue). Given that confusion, it packs a mild surprise: Once the script starts moving pieces around its Amsterdam board, it doesn’t matter that much whether the melodrama lands. The movie is not especially good, but it is, at times, pretty fun. Visually, director Justin Chadwick doesn’t do much more than whip the proceedings into a frenzy, but his woozy, unmoored camera keeps things moving better than turning Weinstein loose in the editing room.
It’s hard to tell if a longer cut of this material would be any better, though maybe it would at least provide clearer character development and motivation. Even when acted out by a capable cast, the movie’s attempts to complicate its relationships are as arbitrary as, say, the initial attraction between Jan and Sophia. This is true of just about everyone on screen: None of the characters or their bonds have any real-world weight. To the contrary, they’re depicted in the simplest of terms even when the movie thinks it’s shading them. Sophia and Maria are friendly, then at odds, then partners. Sex scenes between Cornelis and Sophia are clothed and awkward, while sex scenes between Sophia and Jan are all naked passion. Intercutting their sexual romps with scenes of Jan painting has some cheesy romance-novel charge, but for the most part, that’s far as it goes.
The filmmakers might claim the sexy superficiality as their whole point; if so, it’s a thin one. Chadwick and Stoppard seem to be making a movie about the impulsivity of desire, but they never dig into those feelings beyond depicting them. Intoxicating an audience into caring about tulip bulbs, an attractive but content-light romance, or a sexy fishmonger isn’t easy, and the movie’s attempts are more entertaining than the actual results. On that level, Tulip Fever is easier to enjoy than a lot of recent faux-Weinstein prestige pictures like The Theory Of Everything or Vikander’s The Danish Girl. The fact that it won’t win awards like those may eat away at Weinstein (who must regard Eddie Redmayne as the one who got away), but eases the burden of seriousness that often weighs down costume dramas. Lucky thing, because as a movie about actual human behavior, it’s feverish and fleeting, left dazed after the popping of an awards-movie bubble.