Renée Zellweger is the total package to play legendary performer Judy Garland. Zellweger is an actress who can sing (Chicago), do drama (Cold Mountain) and deliver a punchline (Bridget Jones). She leverages all of the above to bring life and star power to what might otherwise be a rather dry biopic about the singer and actress who rose to fame as Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz and died some 30 years later of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 47.
The film focuses on a brief but poignant period in 1968, just months before Garland’s death. Garland – deemed uninsurable and unreliable – is struggling to make ends meet and retain custody of her two youngest children with ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). So she agrees to a five-week run at the swanky “Talk of the Town” nightclub in London, where she can still command a sell-out crowd. She’s fragile, exhausted and vulnerable, but also witty, charming and able to belt out a tune – except for when she’s popping pills and downing drinks. That takes a toll.
Judy is not a traditional, linear biopic. It’s based on a stage play called “The End of the Rainbow” and I suspect that the stage version carries more momentum than the big screen adaptation. The film opens with a brief scene of a teenage Judy (Darci Shaw) getting a stern talking to from the manipulative and controlling studio head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) on the set of The Wizard of Oz. Multiple flashbacks offer glimpses into what pushed Garland onto the rocky path toward insomnia, drugs, several failed marriages and tremendous insecurities. The flashbacks are meant to show how Judy’s past informed her present, but they don’t always serve the main narrative. They tend to become a distraction, resulting in a slow, choppy film where too few characters are fleshed out enough to invest in, which seems a shame given the strength of the supporting cast. And while the film does end on an uplifting moment involving Garland’s signature song “Over the Rainbow,” Judy is quite the downer. Zellweger is what keeps it afloat.
Zellweger immerses herself in the role of the grown-up Judy, doing all her own singing, and nailing Garland’s twitchy mannerisms. She showcases her versatility in much the same way Taron Egerton did (as Elton John) in Rocketman. Both could land on the Best Actor short lists this awards season, even if their films don’t make the cut (outside Costumes, Production Design, etc.). Maybe they can do a duet at the Oscars. Somewhere… Beyond the Yellow Brick Road. How awesome would that be?
Arty Chick’s take: The reason to see this one is Renée Zellweger’s performance. It’s a tour de force and bound to get her an Oscar nod. JUDY‘s strength is in focusing on the very last of her performing life and her look back a the damage done to her by Louis B Mayer and the studio system. Renée Zellweger’s Garland is such a damaged woman, it’s full on tragedy. And it is a film worth seeing!