The long-delayed period romance, "Tulip Fever," comes to theaters amidst of flurry of expectations spurred on by its disastrous production history and a spectacularly botched theatrical release. The film originally played at Cannes back in 2015, and was expected to get a prime awards season rollout that year, but instead the film's distributor--The Weinstein Company--ended up unceremoniously disappearing it from sight.
Several times since the film has been expected to get a national release, only to be pulled from theater schedules at the last possible moment. The studio's hesitancy to let audiences have a look at it has led many to expect a wildly entertaining train wreck, so it's a bit disappointing to report that despite its torrid affairs, pretend pregnancies, and not one, but two faked deaths, the resulting film is mostly bland and forgettable.
Filmmaker Justin Chadwick ("The Other Boleyn Girl") directs from a script by "Shakespeare in Love's" Tom Stoppard and Deborah Moggach, based on her novel. The film follows Sophia (Alicia Vikander), an orphan raised in a convent, who manages to escape poverty by marrying wealthy "king of peppercorns," Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). He longs for an heir, but their routine lovemaking doesn't deliver any results. Then Cornelis makes the mistake of commissioning a portrait from a talented, but down-on-his-luck painter Jan (Dane DeHaan), and no sooner does Jan set eyes on the married woman than they've fallen into bed together. Meanwhile, there's also a helpful servant (Holliday Grainger) and her fishmonger lover (Jack O'Connell), whose fates become intertwined with the painter and his new mistress.
What follows is a plot which requires all of its characters to make the worst possible decisions at any given opportunity. And it's all set against the backdrop of the underground tulip market in 17th century Amsterdam, with frantic backroom dealings in which merchants buy and sell bulbs, putting their livelihoods on the line in the hopes that they would come into possession of a desirably rare bloom and make back the exorbitant price they paid for it.
Cara Delevingne is also on hand (marking a reunion with her "Valerian" costar DeHaan -- though this film was shot first) as a meddlesome prostitute, and Judi Dench at least delivers a knowing performance as an enterprising abbess. Most entertaining of all is a bonkers Zach Galifianakis, whose performance livens things up, playing a character who might as well have been beamed in from the moon.
"Tulip Fever" is the kind of film that makes you wish for more of that kind of entertaining ridiculousness that only occasionally rears its head. Clearly at some point, the makers had aspirations of awards season glory, but with it frequent tonal shifts, odd bits of humor, and soap opera plot contrivances, that was clearly not to be.
That disconnect may help explain why the studio was at such a loss for what to do with the finished product; the messy ending and sporadic narration smacks of studio meddling and re-editing. What's left is a limp costume melodrama that seems to have wilted before it even has a chance to fully bloom.
Visit rochestercitynewspaper.com on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of the romantic comedy "Home Again" starring Reese Witherspoon.