SHOULD I SEE IT?
Renée Zellweger gives a career-defining performance as Judy Garland.
Nostalgia is always a draw and this look at the final months of Garland’s life, as she desperately tries to resurrect her career, will be interesting to her still loyal fanbase.
If ever you wanted to see the definition of an actor elevating material, this is a perfect example.
Because Zellweger is so tremendous, I really do want people to see the film. However, structurally and in execution, Judy, as a movie, is something of a mess.
It is quite alarming how much this movie lacks context and depth. We never dig below the surface, with any character, at any time, and every emotion is just handed to us.
Quite frankly, this feels. at times, like a slapped-together made-for-television movie. Zellweger is absolutely remarkable, but it feels as if director Rupert Goold stumbled into an amazing performance in a film not quite ready for what the Oscar-winning actor brings to the screen.
Make no mistake: Renée Zellweger’s hype as a possible Oscar winner in 2019 is very real, and a nomination is extremely likely for her exceptional, career-defining turn in Judy. The Oscar-winning actor makes a startling comeback, vanishing into the role of Judy Garland, in director Rupert Goold’s sloppy, poorly structured story about the final months of the performer’s life.
Garland would die at 47 years of age in 1969 from an accidental overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. Here, however, Garland is presented as a down-on-her-luck celebrity no one really wants to work with. She performs spot shows with her two children and strings along the money she makes to get from gig to gig and hotel to hotel.
Her ex-husband, Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell), wants to fight for full custody of their children, Lorna (Bella Ramsey) and Joey (Lewin Lloyd). She believes she can care for them, but when her credit card declines and she is booted from her existing hotel, an opportunity to work in London for a nightclub residency seems too good to pass up.
Tearfully, she leaves her children with Sidney and begins performing five nights a week at Talk of the Town, a British nightclub. She is paired with a personal assistant (Jessie Buckley) who makes sure she stays sober enough to perform and gets where she needs to go. She blows off rehearsals, tiffs with her handlers and makes cute with a man more than a decade younger than her, makeshift promoter and entrepreneur Mickey (Finn Wittrock).
Goold’s film is adapted from a stage musical - Peter Quilter’s 2005 musical “End of the Rainbow.” Struggling to find a balance between trusting his audience and making the film feel as big as the personality of its main subject, screenwriter Tom Edge wanders all over the map.
Much of the film’s dialogue and interactions hit squarely on-the-nose and lack any actual depth or insight. Garland is called a drunk and a has-been, or some variation, by a handful of people. Sidney’s discussions amount to little more than “Judy, I want the kids.” Garland’s drug addiction is hinted at, but mostly shown in flashbacks to when, as a teenage performer she worked for a dictatorial studio head, Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), with MGM Studios.
While controlling her diet and manipulating her with pills to sleep and wake up, the film also seems to hint at something very troubling about their working relationship. Additionally, the flashbacks with Young Judy, a/k/a Frances Gumm (Darci Shaw) and a young Mickey Rooney are somehow supposed to imply that had they gotten together, she never would have married five times in her life. More than once, adult Judy mentions Mickey as the love of her life. The movie dabbles, but never fully fleshes out that reality.
Other scenes are not well thought out or put together.
A subplot involving a gay British couple’s massive love of Garland is handled so haphazardly, I could not tell if the movie liked them, mocked them, or included them as tokenism for Garland’s large gay fan base. Her whirlwind romance and fifth marriage to the much-younger Mickey Deans is so poorly written, we never truly believe Mickey and Judy could ever love one another.
And while Zellweger clearly has the voice, the mannerisms, and the behavior and personality locked down tight to play this role so effectively (she sang all the vocals on the film’s soundtrack), she can only carry this film so far. And Judy asks a lot of her.
With that said, Zellweger delivers an exceptional performance, elevating this material to places it never could have dreamed to have gone with anyone else in the role. Her cadence, her look, her presence is stunning, and she is commanding on screen. Zellweger might very well be the comeback story of the year.
When her name came up on screen, in a title card all to herself, the audience I was with applauded her name. And when you see an actor deliver such an impressive performance, we hope and expect the film to match that work on some level.
Unfortunately, Judy just mutters around. Outside of Buckley’s nice turn as Garland’s assistant, the characters in the film all seem so melodramatic, mean-spirited, disingenuous, and rather unlikable. Through Zellweger’s heavy lifting, Judy feels like something more than it is at its core - a decent made-for-television movie.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Gemma-Leah Devereux, Michael Gambon, Bella Ramsey, Darci Shaw, Lewin Lloyd, John Dagleish.
Director: Rupert Goold
Written by: Tom Edge
Based on the stage play “End of the Rainbow” by Peter Quilter
Release Date: September 27, 2019