Once upon a time — May 14, 2015, to be exact — studio mogul Harvey Weinstein held a reception for the press at the Cannes Film Festival. Inside an airy event space a pebble’s throw from the Riviera (#lifeissohard), we all mingled, sipped white wine and then took our seats to listen to Weinstein present his slate of upcoming films. A visibly exhausted Jake Gyllenhaal and Sienna Miller joined him, along with Alicia Vikander — an ingénue fresh off a breakthrough performance in Ex_Machina. We watched The Weinstein Company trailers such as Gyllenhaal’s Southpaw, Miller’s Adam Jones (later renamed Burnt) and Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight. We also got a sneak preview of a prestige drama starring Vikander and Christoph Waltz based on a popular 2000 historical romance novel. Titled Tulip Fever, it was touted as “coming soon.”
Two years, four months and one Chicago Cubs World Series win later, Tulip Fever is finally scheduled for release on September 1. Its long and winding path to the theaters is more twisty than most of the movies I saw this summer. Here’s your history lesson: Steven Spielberg optioned the rights before the book was even printed. Jude Law and Keira Knightley were set to star at one point, and 12,000 tulips were planted at the start of production. Sad! Then Weinstein took over the project with a script by noted playwright Tom Stoppard. This current incarnation was filmed back in 2014 and originally scheduled to arrive in theaters in late 2015. It got pushed at least three times, bouncing like a ping-pong ball from fall to February to summer. Last month, I had a screening invite and a firm release date of August 24. Then it got bumped again. (My screening was cancelled, and I never did see it.) Now Twitter trolls are musing when Ryan Murphy will use it as inspiration for the next American Horror Story.
Tulip Fever certainly isn’t the first movie to have a Keyser Soze air surrounding it, but it just might be the most innocent. This isn’t a provocative low-budget indie featuring a deceased star’s withering last performance. We’re talking about flowers, people! The movie is set in 17th-century Holland, during the annual tulip bloom. Waltz plays a wealthy merchant who hires an artist (Dane DeHaan) to paint a portrait of his young wife (Vikander). Painter and muse begin a torrid affair worthy of a red-band trailer. Cara Delevingne also appears, as do popular-in-2014 stars such as Matthew Morrison, Zach Galifianakis (in period garb!) and Prince Harry‘s now-ex Cressida Bonas.
That’s the material of a typical Oscar nominee. And Weinstein is a master at pushing his movies up a hill to the golden promised land (think Shakespeare in Love and The King’s Speech to name a few). I’m baffled as to why he didn’t just unveil Tulip Fever in October 2016 and work his magic. Guarantee this movie couldn’t be any messier than his Burnt or as overwrought as the adaptation of August: Osage County. Swapping release dates only fuels negative buzz. Sure, producers will give legit reasons — the release date is too competitive! The music is not done yet! — but moviegoers have become savvy to switcharoos. When George Clooney switched his The Monuments Men from December to February a few years ago, he might as well have publicly admitted, “I had Bill Murray, Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett in a movie and still couldn’t make it work.” For Tulip Fever, a Labor Day weekend drop is a surefire DOA. Everyone is too busy celebrating/mourning the end of summer and gearing up for fall craziness to go to the theater and check out doe-eyed Vikander looking pretty.
The irony is that according to honest-to-god people who got an “early” look, Tulip Fever is . . . not that bad! The New York Post quoted a source who noted only a few “giggle-worthy” moments, including Waltz’s character asking his bride for a hand because “my little soldier is drowsy tonight.” Vulture also polled insiders and concluded it’s “a mediocre period drama that’s clearly been recut by the studio a few too many times.” (The official review embargo is off September 1, the afternoon of the release.) Surely that feedback doesn’t merit a peculiar eleventh-hour release-date move of all of one week. At this point, why not just quietly put it on Netflix? Give or take a nude scene, this would also make a suitable Lifetime offering.
Then again, maybe the hilariously long gestation period is the best thing that could ever happen to Tulip Fever. I’d venture that crazy-bad buzz is better than zero buzz. (Aware of any other movies coming out on Friday?) Heck, summer movies with fantastic word of mouth this summer flailed at the box office. Now that I think of it. . . maybe the movie shouldn’t come out. Ever. Let Tulip Fever grow into true mythological status. Then Weinstein can release a long-lost “director’s cut,” a la Superman II, in a decade. (Who know, maybe Delevingne will be a good actress by then.) If it never blooms, it can never wilt.
(Tulip Fever arrives in theaters — allegedly! — on Friday, September 1)
Also published on Medium.