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Dim bulb - ‘Tulip Fever’

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Historical drama tonally jarring, nonsensically plotted

There are few moviegoing experiences as weirdly enjoyable as watching a prestige picture gone awry. These are the films that were clearly intended to draw arthouse credibility and award nominations, but instead, due to some combination of miscalculations, wind up shelved for an indefinite amount of time before finally being thrust into a new release dead zone and left to fend for themselves.

“Tulip Fever” – directed by Justin Chadwick from a script adapted from the Deborah Moggach novel of the same name by Moggach and Tom Stoppard (yes, THAT Tom Stoppard) – is precisely such a film, a weirdly dissonant fever dream of a historical drama filled with misplaced rom-com-flavored moments and narrative nonsense for which not even a wildly overqualified cast can compensate.

It’s the 17th century in Amsterdam. Sophia (Alicia Vikander, “The Light Between Oceans”) is an orphan who has been married off to a wealthy merchant named Cornelis Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz, “The Legend of Tarzan”) in exchange for his paying for her siblings to be shipped to America to live with a distant relative. All Cornelis wants is an heir, a child to carry on his name. Sophia does her best to accommodate his wishes, but circumstances prove antithetical to their goal.

Meanwhile, Sophia’s servant Maria (Holliday Granger, “My Cousin Rachel”) is in love with local fishmonger Willem (Jack O’Connell, “Money Monster”), who decides to try and finance their future lives together by involving himself in the popular and seemingly ever-profitable tulip trade and purchasing shares in hopes of landing a particularly valuable bulb.

Also, Cornelis decides that he wants a portrait of him and his wife, so he enlists a young artist named Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan, “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”) to paint them. Of course, Sophia immediately falls in love with the painter, who in turn falls in love with her. This leads to a number of furtive trysts; said trysts in turn lead to a misunderstanding involving Willem which end with him getting robbed and forced into the Navy.

But it turns out that Maria is pregnant. Desperate to find a way out of this increasingly delicate deception, Sophia hatches a convoluted plot to ensure the well-being of Maria’s baby while also ensuring that she and Jan can be together while ALSO making sure that Cornelis has no clue what the heck is going on. For Jan’s part, he’s supposed to use the tulip market to procure the money necessary for he and Sophia to escape or whatever.

(Seriously – there’s SO MUCH tulip buying and selling in this movie.)

Scattered throughout are overwrought meet-cutes, wooden dialogue exchanges, ill-fitted bits of comic relief and the occasional oddly porny sex scene.

It’s tough to articulate just how disjointed and jarring “Tulip Fever” is. The first version of the film premiered over two years ago; it has gone through numerous cuts and pushed-back release dates since. And it shows – there’s little cohesion here in terms of narrative or tone or, well … anything, really. It has been quite some time since a movie made me shake my head incredulously as often as this one.

From a distance, this film looks like your standard awards-bait. You’ve got a rich historical setting (which, by the way, is beautifully shot and probably the best part of the whole thing). You’ve got a remarkably talented cast. And you’ve got a love story that probably looked pretty darned enticing on paper.

And almost none of it worked. The end result was a scattershot mishmash that felt more like a parody of a prestige film than anything else. Hell, if the filmmakers had leaned into that a little more, the experience could have been vastly improved.

The cast is packed with legitimate talents, yet they’re all wasted. Vikander wanders through every shot directionless and wide-eyed. DeHaan lacks the charisma to come off as a guy for whom a woman might throw away her life. Granger and O’Connell are forgettable, which is high praise in a movie like this one. And Waltz – the consummate pro – does his due diligence while also transmitting a general disdain from behind his eyes.

Oh, and the cast also includes Dame Judi Dench as a tough tulip-loving nun, Matthew Morrison as a shady hanger-on and Zach Galifianakis as a drunken idiot of an artist’s apprentice.

If I’ve made “Tulip Fever” sound like drunken arthouse movie Mad Libs, then I’ve done my job. Far from exceeding the sum of its parts, it’s as though each part was subtracted from the whole, leading to a movie that has somehow become a negative space. There’s weirdly enjoyable entertainment to be had here, derived from the fascination of watching it all go terribly, terribly wrong.

Consider “Tulip Fever” a terminal case.

[1.5 out of 5]

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