There are worse movies than Tulip Fever. There are also, inevitably, better ones. But if you’ve heard of this Justin Chadwick–helmed period romance, in which a love triangle gets tangled up in the booming tulip mania that overtook Dutch markets in the 1600s, you probably already knew not to expect much. The prediction, anyway, has been that the movie—which finally gets a wide release this weekend, after hovering in release limbo since 2015—would be D.O.A. And, well, it kind of is. But probably not because of the actual movie.
Tulip Fever stars Alicia Vikander, Dane DeHaan, and Christoph Waltz, as well as a loaded cast of supporting players, among them Dame Judi Dench as a kind nun and Zach Galifianakis as an artist’s apprentice and drunken fuck-up. It’s the story of a woman named Sophia (Vikander) who, having been raised in an orphanage, gets sold off to be wed to a rich trader named Cornelis (Waltz). Cornelis wants an heir; he’d have one already, but, this being the 17th century, his previous wife and child both died during childbirth. His new young wife, meanwhile, has taken a liking to Jan Van Loos (DeHaan), a Dutch master-to-be commissioned to paint her portrait. Jan and Sophia have an affair, obviously, and predictably plan to run away with each other. The married couple’s maid Maria, meanwhile, is caught in a complicated romance of her own, one that ultimately leaves her pregnant—and at risk of losing her job.
Everyone’s a little bit desperate in Tulip Fever, which is a blah movie overall but, at minimum, has a story enjoyably overwhelmed with schemes, lies, a fake death, and a baby. There’s a pregnancy rope-a-dope, a botched convent heist, manic cuckolding, a devastating bout of mistaken identity, a tulip-inspired suicide, and a handsy gynecologist who impregnates desperate wives as a side hustle. And then, yes, there are the tulips themselves—their value only escalating, their markets on the verge of a stunning collapse. But not before Maria’s love, a smelly fishmonger, stakes a small fortune in a tulip of rare and remarkable beauty—then disappears. And not before the otherwise broke Jan stakes his small fortune in the same strain of tulip, a bid to raise the money he and Sophia need to escape and make a life for themselves.
There’s a lot going on—I haven’t even gotten to the tulip auctions, which are kind of funny, offering up a weirdly contemporary gloss on tulip futures that feels like it’s straight out of Wall Street. Were this an outright soap opera rather than a stab at glossy romantic thrills, it’d be easy to see the film’s delicious potential rather than just a mess. To his credit, Chadwick somehow keeps the thread: I was never bored or confused, only mystified—and less so by the movie than by the circumstances of its release.
The movie is only bad if you expected it to be good. And, if you’re me, it winds up seeming halfway good because you expected it to be so bad. This—heavy sigh—is how they get you. Tulip Fever is very clearly a movie primed to be gobbled up by an older audience: nothing more nor less. The same theater-goers who shot movies like Brooklyn, Grandma, Woman in Gold, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel to the top of the indie earnings charts for their respective years could prove valuable allies here. When I saw the movie on Friday morning, I was one of two people under the age of 50 in an audience bigger than the Friday matinee crowds I’ve previously spotted at movies like Beauty and the Beast. You can brush that off as anecdotal evidence if you like, but remember: This is a movie in which Dame Judi Dench plays a rat-swatting, thief-clubbing nun. There’s an audience for this.
Appealing to older audiences is apparently the promotional strategy that the Weinstein Company originally had in mind before unwittingly whittling away at Tulip Fever’s chances since 2014. Now, tellingly, they’re selling it as “this year’s sexiest thriller”—which, so we’re clear, is embarrassing. Not so long ago, before straying from the righteous and sensible path, the studio, conceding the movie’s lack of Oscar momentum, banked on an early-year release that would take advantage of the interest of eager older audiences. But there have been so many release dates to keep up with: November 2015, July 2016, February 2017 … somewhere around that timeline lurks a Cannes Film Festival preview, an aborted awards run, and God knows how many re-cuts and test screenings.
Mind you, there’s something a little thrilling about all of this: There’s something invigorating about a very public, long-brewing failure. Though they’d never admit it, Hollywood loves a good disaster movie—by which I mean a movie that’s a disaster. They’d love to be able to hang Tulip Fever’s head on a pike as a warning to all the other future mishaps. They’d love to chronicle this as reflective of the era: We’re already on our way to treating the movie like myth.
But the movie I saw just isn’t bad enough to merit relishing in its badness. I almost wish it were worse—that’d be more fun. But as is, Tulip Fever is already intermittently fun, if admittedly ridiculous. Sometimes, you just want to see something as messy and unforgivable as a Madea comedy, but with white people in reticella lace and corsets. I won’t say it’s “too bad” this movie seems primed to fail, because whatever—the movie is neither here nor there. But I bet it could’ve made a nice buck. Maybe, if it finds the right audience, it still can.