Tulip Fever

Tulip-Fever-rev Tulip Fever  (2017)    The Weinstein Company/Drama    RT: 107 minutes    Rated R (sexual content and nudity)    Director: Justin Chadwick    Screenplay: Tom Stoppard    Music: Danny Elfman    Cinematography: Eigil Bryld    Release date: September 1, 2017 (US)    Cast: Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Jack O’Connell, Holliday Grainger, Tom Hollander, Matthew Morrison, Kevin McKidd, Douglas Hodge, Joanna Scanlan, Zach Galifianakis, Judi Dench, Christoph Waltz, David Harewood, Alexandra Gilbreath, Cara Delevingne.

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 Adultery, a fake pregnancy, an out-of-wedlock pregnancy and an illegal tulip bulb ring- who knew 17th century Amsterdam was like a bad soap opera? It was if you believe a single frame of Tulip Fever, a period costume drama that’s been sitting on the shelf for over two years. That it’s part of the final wave of summer movies for the year 2017 tells you all you need to know. It stinks. It’s bad for several reasons but its biggest flaw is that it destroys its own credibility by casting Zach Galifianakis as the same kind of doofus character he plays in comedies like Due Date and the Hangover trilogy. His role is thankfully small but he still causes some serious damage. He’s no Dogberry (from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing) but I’ll still gladly write him down as an ass (Act IV, Scene II).

 tulip feverDescribing the plot of Tulip Fever is a real challenge. It has several narratives and they’re not always an easy fit. I’ll start with the main character Sophia (Vikander, Ex Machina), an orphan girl purchased by wealthy widower Cornelis (Waltz, Django Unchained) for the sole purpose of conceiving and bearing him an heir. Every night after a long piss, he climbs next to her in bed and tells her his “little soldier” is ready for action. She’s clearly repulsed and merely goes through the motions with no success. By way of building a legacy, he hires struggling artist Jan Van Loos (DeHaan, A Cure for Wellness) to paint their portrait. It isn’t long before Sophia and Jan start an affair.

 Meanwhile, Sophia’s maid and confidante Maria (Grainger, My Cousin Rachel) is love with William (O’Connell, Unbroken), the local fishmonger. They have sex whenever and wherever they can. He wants to marry her but needs money in order to do so. He gets involved with the illegal tulip trade. It bears mentioning that tulips were a hot commodity in 17th century Amsterdam. Bulbs fetched a lot of money especially on the black market. Through misfortunate circumstances, William loses the money he makes and is forcibly enlisted in the Navy for a year. Maria has no idea where he is which is bad because she’s carrying his baby.

 This is one of the areas where Tulip Fever goes off the rails. Let’s see what we have here, shall we? One woman wants to have a baby but can’t get pregnant. Another is pregnant but can’t bear the shame of having a baby out of wedlock. What is one supposed to do? Easy. Sophia stuffs a pillow under her dress and pretends to be pregnant for nine months while Maria hides her condition for that amount of time. At the end, it’ll look like Sophia had the baby herself, Cornelis will have his heir and Maria will still be near her child. Everybody’s happy. It sounds like something Lucy and Ethel would come up with. Wait, it gets even more ridiculous. It leads right up to another scheme in which Sophia fakes her own death in order to leave her husband and run off to the West Indies with her lover. Yeah, it should work like a charm.

 There’s also some business about the convent where Sophia grew up also being used as a growth center for tulips. The abbess is played by Judi Dench (the upcoming Victoria and Abdul); despite giving one of the movie’s only good performances, she is criminally underused. There’s a smarmy doctor (Hollander, In the Loop) who becomes part of the pregnancy scheme and assorted lowlifes like the thieving whore played by DeHaan’s Valerian co-star Cara Delevingne. Bottom line, the plot of Tulip Fever is hopelessly muddled. It’s all over the map. What’s worse, it moves at a snail’s pace. Despite everything going on, it’s totally boring.

 Tulip Fever has a few good things going for it. The sets and costumes are gorgeous. Director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) makes great use of color. I like how he dresses Sophia in blue as if she’s a walking dream. Speaking of her, Vikander delivers a sincere performance. She convincingly plays a woman looking for happiness. She’s miserable being the wife of a crude, boorish man who sees her as only a babymaker. Chadwick also has a strong sense of visuals in how he shows 17th century Amsterdam as a busy, bustling port city with a dark criminal undercurrent. The problem is that it doesn’t help the clumsy, convoluted narrative at all. The story never really comes together nor does it draw in the viewer. The romantic dialogue is drippy. There’s also a great deal of overacting and overheated sex scenes. It falls apart long before the end.

 I’m actually shocked that Tulip Fever is told with a straight face. This is one nutty movie. It’s a period piece, soap opera, crime drama and Douglas Sirk melodrama rolled into one. If I had to describe it in a single word, it would be “ridiculous”. If it didn’t take itself so damn seriously, it could be seen as a spoof of classy costume dramas. If it wasn’t so boring, I’d call it a “guilty pleasure”. There might come a time when Tulip Fever is seen as a bad movie classic but I’m not holding my breath. It’s a wilted flower of a movie. 

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