PLOT In 17th century Amsterdam, two illicit lovers gamble their future on the volatile tulip market.
CAST Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, Christoph Waltz
RATED R (some explicit sexuality)
BOTTOM LINE “Anna Karenina” meets “Irrational Exuberance” in this corny bodice ripper.
Before Pokémon, Beanie Babies and subprime mortgages, history’s most notorious financial bubble was the Dutch tulip craze of the mid-1600s. As popular lore has it, many fortunes were made and many lives ruined when prices of tulip bulbs — the rarer and more colorful the better — skyrocketed beyond all reasonable value and then cratered virtually overnight.
That’s the backdrop for the steamy romance “Tulip Fever,” Justin Chadwick’s glossy adaptation of Deborah Moggach’s novel, which tries to draw a connection between illicit love and financial risk. It’s the story of a young woman, Sophia (Alicia Vikander), who marries the much older Cornelius Sandvoort, a man with great wealth but little sex appeal (a dependably good Christoph Waltz). Soon Sophia falls for a struggling painter, Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan). Between sweaty trysts in his studio, the two plan to run off together after building a fast fortune in tulips.
“Tulip Fever” is certainly a classy-looking period piece, with elegant design by Simon Elliott and painterly cinematography by Eigil Bryld. (Look for at least one obvious reference to Vermeer). It also features the great Tom Stoppard (“Shakespeare in Love”) as a co-screenwriter with Moggach. The movie’s problems, though, run deep: unsympathetic characters and an utterly unconvincing story.
For starters, Sophia doesn’t seem driven by much more than sex. Her husband may be a fusty old fogey, but he’s basically kind and considerate, while her supposedly romantic artist, Jan, is about as interesting as a blank canvas. Because these noncharacters can’t drive a story, “Tulip Fever” relies on the oldest of contrivances: mistaken identities, faked deaths, accidental eavesdropping. Sophia’s scheme to escape her husband with the help of her maidservant Maria (an appealing Holliday Grainger) is implausibly elaborate. (At times, “Tulip Fever” feels like a Dutch “Ocean’s Eleven.”) Judi Dench plays the Abbess, one of those aged figures who steps in to solve everyone’s problems.
Near the film’s end, when everything is riding on a single tulip, Jan puts his fate in the hands of Amsterdam’s biggest drunk (Zach Galifianakis). This makes Jan look like the city’s biggest idiot, and makes us wonder why he’s the hero of this film. All told, this movie about love during a bubble is a bust.