Part of the appeal of watching Zellweger tackle the role is that she herself seems poised on the brink of a career comeback. She ended a six-year acting hiatus with 2016s Bridget Joness Baby, and Judy is an even more triumphant announcement of her return, one that will almost certainly be in the awards-season conversation. Despite some uncannily great makeup and hair design, Zellweger never entirely disappears into the role, extending Judys story into a meta reflection of every Hollywood actress crushed by megalomaniac studio heads and the endless demands of a mercurial public. Zellwegers Judy is a fascinating mix of frailty and flintiness, part baby bird thats fallen out of the nest and part vaudevillian so steeped in the art of working a crowd that she couldnt stop if she tried.
Loosely based on Peter Quilters critically acclaimed play End Of The Rainbow, Judy centers on a five-week run of London concerts Garland did in 1968, not long before she died. It was a desperate time for the erstwhile Dorothy Gale, who was buried under mountains of debt and locked in a custody battle over her two young children with her third husband/former manager Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell). When we first meet Zellwegers Judy, she can still sell out theaters, but shes effectively homeless. So she packs up her things and does what shes been doing since she was just 2 years old: sing for her supper—and the supper of everyone around her.
Screenwriter Tom Edge ratchets up the sense of anticipation by waiting quite a while before we hear Judy sing; once she starts, however, the musical numbers become the lifeblood of the film. Goolds long career as a theater director serves him well in staging Judys concert performances, which include By Myself, The Trolley Song (which scores a montage of work, pills, and insomnia), Come Rain Or Come Shine, and, of course, Somewhere Over The Rainbow. A lifelong show pony, Judy can instantly snap out of a prescription drug-fueled haze into full-on star mode—except when she cant and her performances crash and burn, which is gripping in a different kind of way. Zellweger provides her own vocals, and gives the performances an uninhibited live-wire quality thats more powerful than a direct impression ever could be. She sounds fantastic, which makes her a fine fit for a past-her-prime version of one of the greatest singers in American history.
Less effective are flashbacks to the early days of Judys MGM career, just before starring in The Wizard Of Oz. Theyre meant to add depth to Judys present-day struggles, but they indulge in the worst biopic clichés and fail to bring them to life with any sense of conviction. The villainous figures who robbed Judy of a childhood are cartoonish rather than terrifying, and Darci Shaws younger version of Judy feels more like a metaphor for innocence than an actual human being. Biopic clichés abound in the 1968 portion as well, as Judy falls for a dreamy younger man (Finn Wittrock) and alternately earns the ire and sympathy of her minder (Wild Roses Jessie Buckley). But those segments are at least buoyed by Zellwegers performance, and at their best locate some genuine humanity behind their more maudlin aims—like a sweet (if overly sentimental) sequence where Judy befriends a pair of gay fans who come to see her night after night.
Though it tries to keep its focus relatively contained, Judy fails to find a sense of thematic cohesion, which perhaps just speaks to what a gargantuan figure Judy Garland is in American pop culture. Judys most poignant moments emerge when the film trusts Zellwegers understated line readings to encapsulate big ideas, like Judys loving relationship with her kids or her complex co-dependency with her fans. Most heartbreaking of all is a brief, poignant acknowledgement of just how much Garlands eventual decline came about simply because studio executives wanted her to be thinner. Unfortunately, Judy too often feels shallow and surface, even as Zellwegers performance works overtime to give it heft and depth. Still, Garlands life is so inherently emotional and Zellwegers performance is so appreciably raw, that Judy manages to wring pathos by the end. It just does so without the grace that defined its central star at her best.
Renée Zellweger is Judy Garland in first trailer for fall biopic JudyFor a kinder, gentler take on A Star Is Born, try Judy Garlands Easter ParadeLike the best romantic comedies, Bridget Joness Diary is about more than just falling in loveAbout the authorCaroline SiedeCaroline SiedeContributor, The A.V. Club. Caroline Siede is a pop culture critic in Chicago, where the cold never bothers her anyway. Her interests include superhero movies, feminist theory, and Jane Austen novels.
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