Timing is everything. That’s the takeaway, both on-screen and off, from “Tulip Fever,” a well-bred, if tawdry period drama set in Amsterdam at the height of Tulipmania, in 1637, when prized bulbs might fetch more than the value of a house. It was an economic bubble, of course (although the term would not be coined for nearly another century, with the so-called British South Seas Bubble), and fortunes were made and lost according to when investors entered the market.
But timing also matters in the telling of such stories, and Deborah Moggach’s 1999 novel coincided nicely with the dot-com bubble, whereas the long-delayed adaptation of same from the Weinstein Company arrives at a perplexing moment. Not only is there nothing presently in the zeitgeist to which to peg such a story (except perhaps the Dane DeHaan-Cara Delevingne reunion nobody asked for, shot before “Valerian” and shelved for nearly a year), but the entire package has a curiously old-fashioned feel — and not just because it takes place 380 years ago.
Rather, “Tulip Fever” aspires to the handsome, harmless middlebrow appeal of such Miramax movies as “Chocolat” and “Shakespeare in Love,” and ultimately represents the kind of “prestige” art-house pablum around which Harvey Weinstein could once spin a best picture frenzy. On paper, the project’s pedigree is impeccable: Directed by Justin Chadwick (who captured the rustling of corsets in “The Other Boleyn Girl”) from a screenplay co-written by Tom Stoppard (that most eloquent of dramaturges, who shares credit here with the novelist), the film stars Oscar winners Alicia Vikander and Christoph Waltz as a loveless couple, the wealthy merchant Cornelis Sandvoort and his young wife Sophia, whom he rescues (or purchases, really) from a convent where the script has created a role for that grand dame of Oscar winners. Judi Dench plays the horticulture-savvy Abbess, who cultivates tulip bulbs and young orphans alike, carefully placing each according to its proper value.
Sophia isn’t exactly miserable in her new marriage, but it’s grim work all the same. Cornelis wants a male heir, but is a flop in the sack (we hear more than we might like about his droopy “little soldier”). And while such vanity may be excusable, his true fault is inviting a young painter, Jan van Loos (DeHaan), into his house to memorialize the couple via a portrait — one lushly inspired by the work of Johannes Vermeer and Alfred Stevens’ centuries-later “The Blue Dress.” There’s something in the way Jan looks at Sophia that she’s never felt before — we’ve never felt it either, as the movie completely fails to convey this vital attraction, leaving us to wonder why Sophia would jeopardize the comfort of her new life for this second-rate artist (the Vermeer of 2003’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” seems like a virtual stud by comparison).
The film’s answer isn’t passion, but something Sophia knows nothing about: Jan has begun to speculate in the city’s flourishing tulip market. After an ambitious fishmonger (Jack O’Connell, virtually unrecognizable) makes a lucky gamble on a batch of 50 white bulbs that contains a rare “breaker,” Jan gets cocky in what amounts to the world’s first futures market, and before long, he’s risking great sums on the prospect that the same breaker — whose owner has been conveniently whisked off to sea — will fetch considerably more down the road.
Still, breakers — a rare bulb distinguished a unforeseen stroke of crimson — are a fine analogy for the existence of a movie like this, which comes together on the optimistic belief that its makers can anticipate the demand for its stars. Had it opened a year earlier, the film might have been able to capitalize on Vikander’s recent Oscar win, and wouldn’t have been tainted by “Valerian’s” failure. But no amount of reshoots or cutting can create chemistry where none exists, and the love scenes here are more revolting than romantic, evoking the odors of grimy feet and unwashed hair, as opposed to flowery potpourri.
Cornelis may not be the ideal husband, but he’s a considerate one at least. Instead of lording his status over Sophia, he venerates her, treating his new bride as if he’s undeserving of her beauty — an attitude that makes him far more sympathetic as the cuckold than DeHaan proves as the cad. DeHaan has been fine in other roles, but this summer has been unkind to him: Between this and “Valerian,” casting agents seem to have confused his appeal with that of Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor he vaguely resembles (and whose dastardly kid brother he’d be ideally suited to play).
But there is a still greater casting folly lurking at the heart of “Tulip Fever” (not Delevingne, who plays a prostitute, but is barely in it), and that is the choice of Zach Galifianakis as Jan’s bumbling, perpetually soused manservant, Gerrit, who is either playing the role seriously or, more likely, has had all of his comedy moments excised from the film, leaving a distracting vacuum where his character belongs. The movie’s true romantic plot goes to its narrator, the Sandvoort’s housekeeper Maria (Holliday Grainger), who’s pregnant via the unfortunate fishmonger mentioned earlier — and who agrees to hide the condition in a vaguely amusing, but mostly miscalculated charade, which begins as farce but spirals ridiculously out of control.
Grainger isn’t the main character, but she takes over the movie, as we wait for her shanghaied baby daddy to reappear and clear up the lunacy that overtakes “Tulip Fever” in its second half. What began as a respectable, if somewhat flat 17th-century love story, complete with gorgeous costumes and lush score, seems to lose its wits as it goes along — which may have been the mindset of the era, but feels like a miscalculated opportunity here.