[Review] ‘JUDY’ – Renée Zellweger shines, the rest is rusty

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Courtney Howard // Film Critic

JUDY

Rated PG-13, 1 hour and 58 minutes

Directed by: Rupert Goold

Starring: Renée ZellwegerJessie BuckleyDarci Shaw, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell

Judy Garland captured the hearts of audiences when she wistfully sang the melancholy ballad “Somewhere Over The Rainbow,” longing to be elsewhere. A powerful voice with a poignant story, the megawatt entertainer was amongst Hollywood’s walking wounded – a product of an ethically bankrupt studio system. Director Ruper Goold’s end-of-the-road portrait of the eponymous superstar, JUDY, spotlights the culmination of the icon’s transfixing brilliance, and spotlights the brilliance of the actress embodying her essence. That said, a film can’t survive on one performance alone, and the waves created by the leading lady catch the rest of the picture in an undertow.

It should come as no surprise that behind all the pill popping and paisley pantsuits lies a sorrowful soul left battle-weary by the years of psychological torment thrust upon Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) by those who should’ve had her best interests at heart. As she shows up late at night seeking shelter for herself and her two young children at a Los Angeles hotel, her exterior projects unflappable wit and strength – but it’s merely an egg-shell container for her blues and vulnerabilities. Times are desperate with money sources dwindling and career opportunities drying up due to her unreliable reputation. Out of necessity, she’s forced to take the first offer to come her way: a flashy overseas gig performing in London. While it takes her away from her kids, it also could put her career back on the map.

Judy’s worry over leaving her kids behind with ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) during their formative years causes her to reflect on her own childhood. Goold adds cinematic panache to her teenage flashbacks (played in younger years by Darci Shaw), when pivotal moments of rebellion against wrong-headed authority resulted in the emotional scars she bears as an adult. Throughout the flashbacks, we gain a picture of what Judy was forced to soldier through – staged photoshoots, faux celebrations, and psychological manipulation. She’s collateral damage to Louis B. Mayer’s whims and, as shown here, unwanted #MeToo advances. Her demons surface and chase her when self-doubt and depression arise.

Renée Zellweger in JUDY. Courtesy of LD Entertainment and Roadside Attractions.

Perhaps the greatest strength of this biopic is that Zellweger doesn’t play Judy with any sense of pity or sympathy, rather empathy and compassion for a star whose shine wasn’t allowed to radiate with autonomy. Considering how much backstory isn’t shown here (multiple abortions, divorces, suicide attempts), the multi-faceted actress mines the tragic celebrity’s hidden complexities with strength and agency, even when Judy’s resolutions end in self-destructive outcomes. Zellweger’s performance is as spirited as it is sorrowful, radiant yet regret-filled, determined yet delicate. Without an ounce of crass mimicry, she channels the legend’s essence, bestowing her inspired portrayal with a compelling edge.

The rest of the film fails to rise to the level set by its star. Supporting roles, like Jessie Buckley as the assistant tasked to babysit Judy, and Finn Wittrock as Judy’s younger lover/ final ex-husband Mickey Deans, are barely-fleshed-out characters who merely serve the plot rather than illuminate Judy’s journey. Well-intentioned, heartfelt scenes involving Judy’s two gay male fans, who invite her back to their home for a late night dinner, don’t land with much genuine impact beyond the expected. Plus, the narrative structure falls prey to predictability, not only because we know the real life history behind these events, but because we’ve seen biopics like this before that rely on formula.

On the whole, the film’s pacing, techniques and narrative intent are akin to FILM STARS DON’T DIE IN LIVERPOOL, where the heroine is finally allowed to find the redemption she so richly deserves. Goold, along with screenwriter Tom Edge (who adapts this from Peter Quilter’s stageplay, “End of the Rainbow”), regretfully shies away from shining a light on darker aspects in order to deliver a safe product with mass-market appeal. That doesn’t help this biopic to stand out in a crowd, ironically unlike the heroine herself who assuredly did.

Grade: C

JUDY is now playing.

About author

Courtney Howard

Courtney Howard is a LAFCA, OFCS and AWFJ member, as well as a Rotten Tomatometer-approved film critic. Her work has been published on Variety, She Knows and Awards Circuit.