The performance of Renee Zellweger as a falling-apart Judy Garland, from the singing to the soap opera that was her last year of life, is the sole reason for fans to check out “Judy.”
Zellweger makes Garland’s turning-on-a-dime emotions, going from deliriously happy to deep depression, look effortless, and that is a gift.
Her mastery of Garland’s voice and tics are impressive, and her onstage performances remind us why Zellweger deserved her Oscar nomination as scandalous showbiz wannabe Roxie Hart in “Chicago.”
The performer elevates “Judy” but can’t make it more than it is: a new telling of the often-told nightmare that was Garland’s life until her death at 47, but in a depressing manner that reinforces that there’s nothing new to see here.
This is a lazy antique of a film that feels like it’s from another time — like 1968, the year in which the story is set.
This is a two-hour movie that feels like five.
There have already been enough biographies of Garland that most who would see “Judy” are somewhat familiar with the big details: miserable childhood, booze and pills, overdoses and suicide attempts, five husbands and other relationships that took advantage of a damaged soul.
This film, based on a theater piece entitled “End of the Rainbow,” takes us to London, where Garland is staging a series of performances at The Talk of the Town music hall.
It’s not what she wants to do, but she is broke, between husbands and essentially homeless as she bounces between hotels she can’t pay for with young children Lorna and Joey Luft in tow, exhibiting just a part of the erratic parenting for which she was also known.
(A note: by this time, oldest daughter Liza Minnelli was 22).
All of this is staged as a way to show her custody battle with the children’s father (Rufus Sewell) and let her act out despite her erratic nature being completely at fault.
The tantrums are constant, from boo-hooing about her children to her often drunken performances in London.
The film’s drama is the same as it was during these events 50 years ago: Each night, these multiple performances by Garland could be either an unforgettable interpretation of standards or a zonked-out, falling-down embarrassment, and who knows which night you bought tickets for.
The filmmakers bounce between these theatrics and flashbacks to her early career in studio head Louis B. Mayer’s “star system” as a means of showing us “Hey, this is why Judy turned out so troubled.”
From drugs supplied to keep her from eating or to help her sleep, she looks addicted as a teen, and Louis B. Mayer is depicted as more likely a child molester than as a father figure on the studio lot.
“You give people dreams,” Mayer coos to his little girl who’s about to portray Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” and we understand how he’s manipulating the teen: Don’t you want this? Isn’t this dream more important than your childhood? You don’t want to be normal, do you?
This staging is dark and creepy and probably close to the truth, according to multiple Garland stories.
But that doesn’t mean it had to be told in such a paint-by-numbers method of music biopic.
In the first five minutes, we are introduced to Judy; then her children; then her ex; then a cameo by Liza; and then the man who will be her next love interest, and it feels like reading a Wikipedia page entry.
But at least there’s Zellweger, and if you didn’t see her in “Bridget Jones’s Baby” (you should have) to find that she was a comeback waiting to happen after a few years off the screen, “Judy” is proof that she’s still a triple-threat talent.
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If only we could click our heels together and make the movie measure up to Zellweger’s stellar performance.