Renée Zellweger in Judy (Photo: Roadside)
★★½ (out of four)
DIRECTED BY Rupert Goold
STARS Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley
Judy, the screen adaptation of Peter Quilter’s play (End of the Rainbow) about Judy Garland, places Renée Zellweger at an incredible disadvantage. It’s always more impressive — and generally preferable — when actors do their own singing in movies, and Zellweger can certainly sing. But Judy Garland is one of the great singers of all time — no one, absolutely no one, had a voice like hers — and hearing Zellweger offer her renditions of “Over the Rainbow” and “The Trolley Song” provides no more emotional resonance than hearing a cover band tackle The Beatles or Bob Dylan.
And yet Zellweger is still the best thing about Judy, a shaky biopic that looks at the mercurial entertainer near the end of her rough’n’tumble life. Zellweger doesn’t completely disappear into the part as thoroughly as, say, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Val Kilmer as Jim Morrison, but she still captures the tragic dimensions of a woman whose larger-than-life persona threatened to swallow whole not only herself but those around her.
Judy centers on the period at the end of 1968 when the actress — bitter, broke, and sparring over the children with ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) — arrives in London for several concerts at the popular venue The Talk of the Town. Her stay is punctuated by a series of alcoholic binges, a roller coaster relationship with her British handler (Jessie Buckley as the real-life Rosalyn Wilder), a tender friendship with two gay fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira as the fictional Dan and Stan), and an abrupt marriage to her American boyfriend Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). The last few months of her life (she passed away in June 1969) are dismissed with closing text that doesn’t even bother to relate how she died (accidental overdose), although there are ample flashback scenes to MGM head Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) verbally abusing the 16-year-old Judy (Darci Shaw) on the set of 1939’s The Wizard of Oz.
By linking the flashback sequences to Garland’s London gig, Judy vividly demonstrates how this poor child, under the thumb of a monstrous mother and an uncaring studio, never stood a chance at the beginning and how this informed the difficulties encountered throughout her entire life. But the tragic dimensions never reverberate beyond what we already knew about this remarkable, tortured talent, as the movie settles into the same boilerplate cadences employed by too many screen biopics. Its solutions feel facile, and its moments of uplift (particularly toward the end) feel phony.
At one point in the film, Judy tells a TV interviewer that “I’m only Judy Garland one hour a night,” further explaining that the rest of the time she’s just an ordinary person who just wants the ordinary things everyone else wants. But was she ever ordinary, or always extraordinary? This movie never pulls back the curtain far enough for us to decide. The title of Judy might hint at a comprehensive biopic, but the end result — entertaining yet erratic — yields only Munchkin-sized dividends.