Friday, September 01, 2017

Tulip Fever: Will it Still Bloom After Being Buried So Long?

The boom and bust of the Dutch Tulip market was so dramatic, it became one of the primary case studies in Charles Mackay's classic (and now more relevant than ever) Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Despite what CBS might think, agitated masses often display foolish and reckless behavior, such as paying ten times the average skilled artisan’s wages for a single tulip bulb. Just when the market starts to look dicey, a pair of lovers hope to flip an exceedingly rare bulb to finance their happily ever after in Justin Chadwick’s notoriously delayed Tulip Fever (trailer here), which supposedly finally opens today nationwide.

The Dutch love their tulips. This was particularly true during the Dutch Golden Age. Like anything valuable, a commodities market for tulips sprung up, in which titles to bulb were traded by investors who never touched a spade in their lives. Old school merchant Cornelis Sandvoort is wise enough to steer clear of such wild speculation. Instead, his losing investment is his wife Sophia, whom he more or less purchased from her convent, but has yet to produce an heir.

In a cruel twist of fate, the Sandvoort’s housekeeper Maria has fertility to spare. She learns she is carrying her fishmonger lover’s baby soon after his is shanghaied by a press gang. Ordinarily, her master would turn out an unmarried pregnant servant without a second thought, but she has leverage over her mistress. She threatens to expose Sophia’s affair with sleepy-eyed garret-dwelling portrait painter Jan Van Loos if she is kicked to the curb. Thus, begins a desperate scheme to conceal her pregnancy and ultimately facilitate the lovers’ new life together, which will be financed by an exceedingly rare bulb Van Loos manages to claim.

Tulip Fever has been postponed so many times, it has evolved from an industry joke into an urban legend. Seriously, how hard is it to market a film penned by screenwriter Tom Stoppard, starring Oscar winners Alicia Vikander, Christoph Waltz, and Dame Judi Dench? Although some have come to doubt it, the film does indeed exist. It is okay—respectable but nothing spectacular. Frankly, Suite Française, which the Weinstein Company shunted off to Lifetime, is a far superior film, but this is the wrong film to look for logic in its release strategy.

Regardless, the Fever’s problems are glaringly obvious, starting first and foremost with the gross miscasting of Dane DeHaan as Van Loos. DeHaan is simply not a romantic lead—not by the wildest stretch of the imagination. He is the guy you cast as the nebbish introvert with a facial tic. Not for one instant can we believe him as Vikander’s lover.

Aside from looking awkward in her scenes with DeHaan, Vikander is fine as Sandvoort. Arguably, Waltz tries a little too hard as her fastidious husband, but he has some surprisingly poignant moments in the third act. However, it is excruciatingly painful to watch Zach Galifianakis’s shtick as Van Loos’s drunkenly buffoonish sidekick. Dude, go back to the ferns. However, Tom Hollander darn near rescues the film singlehandedly with his slyly roguish portrayal of the morally flexible Dr. Sorgh.

Fever has obviously been recut so many times, it is no longer fair to judge Stoppard screenplay. The business of the tulip market is fascinating, but the film never displays his erudite wit. Again, the self-defeating cast does not help in this respect either. What could and should have been delightfully tart and indulgent turned out to be fatally middlebrow. Recommended for viewers who have magic glasses that will make DeHaan and Galifianakis disappear from the frame, Tulip Fever hopefully opens today (9/1) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center downtown and the Paris Theatre uptown.