Even if you weren’t one of the millions who tore though Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, the best-selling 2000 love-triangle novel set in 17th-century Amsterdam, it’s tough watching the movie version without feeling you’ve seen it a couple of times already.

In 2014’s Effie Gray, Dakota Fanning played the eponymous teenage bride of sexually stunted Victorian art critic and aesthete John Ruskin. As the plot thickened, our heroine risked shame and scandal by hurling herself into an affair with pre-Raphaelite artist John Everett Millais while he painted her portrait. In 2003’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, the peasant housemaid played by Scarlett Johansson obsessed the much older Johannes Vermeer as he immortalized her on canvas. Now comes the lush, toney Tulip Fever, about which so much has already been written—how it was first optioned for movies in 2000; how John Madden (not that John Madden) and then Steven Spielberg were supposed to direct it; how Harry Styles was positioned as the male lead; how the distributor showed it at Cannes two years ago and how its release got rearranged four times. Is it a mismanaged masterwork or an unintentionally side-splitting debacle? Neither, it turns out. It’s just ordinary, prim and without spark.

The movie is about how orphaned, nunnery-raised, god-loving young Sophia (Vikander, stunning but inert) gets forced to marry powerful, moneyed, much older merchant Cornelis Sandvoort (Waltz, doing exactly what you’d expect), known as “the king of peppercorns". Though the mismatched marrieds awkwardly try and try to conceive a child, nothing happens. Instead, Sophia seizes on the happy accident that her servant, and the movie’s narrator (Holliday Grainger), is pregnant by the local fishmonger (Jack O’Connell) and can provide a ready, needy baby. All she and Maria have to do is trick Cornelis into thinking Sophia is pregnant and Maria isn’t. With me so far?

Meanwhile, Sophia loses herself in an affair with the struggling painter Jan Van Loos (DeHaan), commissioned by her husband to immortalize her in a portrait. With a screenplay credited to Tom Stoppard (and Deborah Moggach), its richly detailed historical setting, costumes and classy cast, Tulip Fever seems all set up for high-style sex, intrigue, romance, elegant plotting—and Oscars. Remember the Tom Stoppard of Shakespeare in Love? Instead, though handsomely shot by Eigil Bryld (In Bruges) and richly scored by Danny Elfman, the whole thing is an all-over-the-map slog, never sure of what it means to be or which tone it means to settle on.

The jumble isn’t helped by the fact that the characters played by Vikander and DeHaan are underwritten grab bags of cliché. The actors are nice to look at, but they try to overcompensate for the script’s deficiencies—and their utter lack of chemistry—with both wild overplaying and deadly dull underplaying. They don’t gel, or even break a sweat. And as for fever? Not even close, although director Justin Chadwick (The Other Boleyn Girl) and cameraman Bryld go heavy on breathless, zooming handheld shots—an attempt to make it seem as if the movie had any urgency or drive at all.

At least the background story and characters have a bit more bloom. In the 1600s, Dutch investors went insane for tulips, creating an international speculative frenzy. Our young lovers try to capitalize on the underground tulip market, hoping it will buy their way to freedom. So lots and lots of frantic complications clutter the narrative—mistaken identities, tiresome narration, pregnancies and B-stories involving sexy financial market groupie played by Cara Delevingne, lecherous doctor Tom Hollander (ever the lively scene-stealer) and Jan’s valet Zach Galifianakis—but it’s no use, not even when Judi Dench shows up to blow away the dust (and every other actor around her) playing a shrewd Abbess.

These tulips may be photogenic, but they are doomed by root rot. 

Tulip Fever

Read more of Stephen Rebello’s movie reviews here.