Tulip Fever comes like a thief in the night, not reviewed, and barely advertised. The picture seems orphaned, dropped into theaters without fanfare on Labor Day weekend. Clearly something must be wrong with this expensively mounted period bodice-ripper. But, in fact, the movie isn't half bad -- it's mediocre but, that said, better than most of the other movies on offer for Labor Day. Indeed, there's nothing really intrinsically wrong with the picture except to say that it's not nearly as effective as it could have been.
Set in Rembrandt's Amsterdam, Tulip Fever concerns a young woman, trapped in a dull marriage to a much older merchant. The merchant commissions a painting of husband and wife, hiring a handsome young artist. The artist and the merchant's wife indulge themselves in a passionate love affair. When the merchant's nubile servant becomes pregnant -- she's enamored with a fishmonger who gets drunk and shanghaied -- the wife hatches a plot to claim the servant's baby as her own, the product of her marriage to the merchant. She engages the services of a corrupt gynecologist; he cures fertility problems by implanting his own seed in women with this problem. The baby is born and passed-off as the merchant's daughter. The merchant's unhappy wife pretends to be dead, a victim of the city's filthy water supply, and she is carted away in casket. The plan is for her to be reunited with the painter and leave the city for the colonies. Unfortunately, the painter has succumbed to "tulip fever", that is, mad speculation in tulip bulbs. Although we expect the painter's speculation to be dashed by the bursting of the "tulip bubble", in fact, he makes a fortune selling a rare mixed white and scarlet tulip bulb, the "Admiral Mary" for 1400 guilder. Unfortunately, the hero's creditors dog him and won't trust the painter to retrieve the fabulous tulip bulb. This induces the painter to send his factotum, played Zach Galiafinakis to travel to the abbey, present the contract for the bulb's purchase to the abbess who has cultivated the flower, and return the bulb to the painter who is anxiously waiting in a roomful of creditors. But the messenger is Zach Galiafinakis, the same dude who wasin The Hangover, and we know that this guy should not be entrusted with walking a dog let alone managing an important transaction of this kind. He gets drunk and ends up mistaking the fabulously valuable bulb for an onion and, so, eats the tulip. The merchant finds out that his wife has betrayed him about the same time that the painter learns that he has squandered his fortune and now has nothing. (The sailor returns from the sea and discovers his girlfriend nursing a baby, his child -- they have an argument and the merchant, who is standing conveniently nearby, overhears them talking about the wife's scheme.) Remarkably, the film somehow contrives a cautiously happy ending out of all this intrigue.
The movie has an impressive pedigree: Steven Spielberg bought the rights to the novel by Debra Muggach, apparently an international best seller. Spielberg recruited Dame Judy Dench to play the abbess who cultivates the tulips and Christoph Walz was signed as the merchant. (Walz is badly miscast -- he is much more handsome, debonair, and attractive than the rather callow, sulking painter; the attraction between the wife and the painter seems implausible at best.) Some other top-grade European actors and actresses were hired and someone thought it would be a good idea to retain Galiafanikis -- he's not half-bad. 12,000 tulips were planted and, then, the tax credits from the UK that were instrumental in financing the movie collapsed or were withdrawn -- the law apparently was re-written. Spielberg lost interest and the film was ultimately directed by Justin Chadwick. The movie was completed in 2015, but withheld and recut. It was withheld from the festival circuit in 2016 and, now, has been tossed onto the market like a dog's breakfast, released, as it were, with stealth and under the cover of a weekend with no blockbuster movies anywhere in sight. Nonetheless, prestige elements remain in the production -- the camerawork simulates Rembrandt and Pieter de Hooch, Tom Stoppard wrote the script, and Danny Elfman composed the score.
The picture could be improved in many ways and so it's a bit frustrating to watch. I could think of a half-dozen cheap ways to make the picture better. For a film about tulips, there are almost no shots of the flowers in the entire picture -- hence, the whole metaphor of "tulip fever", a speculative frenzy that the plot equates with the wild and irrational power of romantic love, is wholly undeveloped. A Steadi-cam and a field of blooming tulips -- hell, you could shoot the scene north of Seattle in an afternoon -- would have immensely improved the picture. Stoppard's script seems to have been savaged -- there are no fine speeches and nothing in the way of memorable dialogue. The film is uncertain as to how to view the merchant -- in some scenes, he is clearly crass and indifferent to his lovely young wife and said to be unfaithful to her. In other scenes, he obviously loves her and, in fact, at the climax, tells the vicious obstetrician that if someone has to die, it should be child. It's a problematic and underwritten role, but Walz is a great actor and he ends up imbuing the merchant with a great and weary sense of dignity and kindness. The merchant's forgiveness is the pivot on which the film turns. The scenes of 17th century Amsterdam are impressive and the costumes and interiors look authentic. The painter's image of the young woman holding a tulip is completely botched -- it looks like something from Cosmopolitan -- and other scenes are stupidly conceived: what is the source for the light in the sealed coffin where the heroine writhes during her escape from the city? A final shot showing the happy ending for the merchant -- he has emigrated to Batavia and we see someone wearing his hat walking across what looks like a sun-scorched swamp. (Clearly Walz was not available for this shot). The image is barren and doesn't count as a picture of the happy ending that the script claims for the merchant.
So how to evaluate this film. It's okay and reasonably diverting. I give it a 6 out of 10. Wait for the DVD.