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Tulip Fever is a lovely and bloodless failure of a movie

Alicia Vikander in Tulip Fever The Weinstein Company
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Tulip Fever, the new Weinstein Company movie about the Dutch tulip craze, has a slightly troubled production history. It was originally scheduled to come out in 2016, but the release was delayed to February 2017, then to August, and finally to September.

Traditionally, multiple delays are the sign of a weak film, but up until I saw Tulip Fever, I held out hope that it might secretly be good. The screenplay is by living legend Tom Stoppard! The cast includes Christoph Waltz and Judi Dench! It’s about flowers and Dutch master painters! How bad could it possibly be?

The answer is: pretty bad.

It’s not that Tulip Fever is incompetently made or unpleasant to look at or offensive in any way. It’s just that it is very, very boring.

The plot involves two pairs of lovers. There’s Sophia (Alicia Vikander) and Jan Van Loos (Dane DeHaan), respectively a rich woman trapped in a loveless marriage and a penniless painter, both high-cheekboned and pouting. And there’s Maria (Holliday Grainger) and Willem (Jack O'Connell), respectively Sophia’s maid and a fishmonger, both rosy-cheeked and gullible. Sophia wants to escape her wealthy husband Cornelis (Christoph Waltz) and run away with Jan, but neither has any money of their own. Maria wants to wed Willem, but they don’t have any money either.

For all involved, the tulip market appears to be the answer. The 17th-century Dutch tulip craze created one of the first futures markets, a bubble in which the price of tulips seemed guaranteed to rise and rise and rise immeasurably. If you get in on a bulb early enough, the lovers reason, your investment is certain to double itself within a month — until, all of a sudden, it doesn’t.

For Tulip Fever, the tulip market becomes a metaphor for the uncertainty of love and sex, for the rush of investing all of your emotional energies in one person, and then the overwhelming crash when the relationship ends and all of the futures you imagined together are destroyed. (“We just need to put all our eggs in one basket!” cries Jan feverishly, referring either to investment strategy or babies, who knows.) And while sex and money are both dramatically heady themes, it’s hard to remain all that interested in either when they’re presented as bloodlessly as they are here.

It is not the cast’s fault. Vikander, who won an Oscar for 2015’s The Danish Girl, makes a valiant effort to find something for Sophia to emote about, but Tulip Fever gives her nothing to work with. In the end, Sophia’s entire personality consists of Vikander’s sad, wide eyes and the character’s collar choices (when she’s feeling repressed she wears a stiff, frilly ruff around her neck, but once she meets Jan it’s all lacy shawl collars all the time). DeHaan barely even tries to invest Jan with any presence, but no one could blame him given how flat the character is on paper.

Only Christoph Waltz is able to salvage a decent performance for himself. (Judi Dench too, sure, but she’s only around for about 15 minutes total.) Waltz’s Cornelis is by turns bumbling and threatening and he’s always compelling onscreen — but that’s in part because pathetic, cuckolded Cornelis is the only character the film seems to care about. Only he is allowed to be consistently funny, and only his struggles are granted genuine pathos.

Ultimately, Tulip Fever is populated with cardboard cutouts of characters who fall in and out of love without exchanging a word because how else will the plot move, and who casually destroy each other’s lives because the movie has to end sometime. It’s not interested in emotions or personalities, but in how relationships work when they’re viewed as cold-blooded economic exercises. It’s almost a sort of aesthetic experiment: What happens when you tell a love story as a story about the rise and fall of speculative markets?

As it turns out, what happens is that both the love story and the market story become very, very dull.

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