In many ways, Judy is a run-of-the mill bio-pic that tells the tale of a beloved Hollywood star hoping for a last glimpse of glory at career’s end. Settling somewhere between Paul McGuigan’s underappreciated Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool and last year’s warm if egregiously maudlin Stan & Ollie, the film serves as a reminder of Judy Garland’s talents on stage.
Derived from the stage play End of the Rainbow by Peter Quilter, the script by Tom Edge and direction by Rupert Goold are rarely showy or even engaging as they present a fairly straightforward look at this damaged songstress. Any plaudits the film may deserve rest squarely on the shoulders of star Renée Zellweger. The actress not only delivers a defining performance, but also provides the metatextual benefit of seeing a one-time superstar return to the big screen after years away from the spotlight.
The film begins with a nice bit of production design replicating the MGM stages where The Wizard of Oz was filmed. Young Judy (Darci Shaw in a fine turn that’ll likely be overlooked by viewers focused on the older iteration) must succumb to the demands of stardom. She lives a surreal life where even a milkshake with a friend is mimed for the cameras, and pills are provided to keep her girlish figure. More insidious is the implication that studio head Louis B. Mayer was sexually manipulative of his young star, which is hinted at by broad hands cupping her face and his enormous figure looming over the young, helpless girl.
All this seems to contextualize, if not excuse, Garland’s often selfish and intoxicated behavior later in life. The film doesn’t quite devolve into hagiography, but it’s clear that she’s a talent who can get away with abusing herself and her voice yet still rely on others, even in late career, to pick up the pieces on her behalf. On stage, when coherent enough, she belts out old tunes to appreciative fans. On other nights, she’s such an embarrassment that the crowd turns on her, literally throwing stuff in her direction.
We get to see weepy Judy vacillate between her maternal duties and musical ambitious while courting young lovers and sycophants. Throughout, Zellweger manages to keep viewers’ interest firmly focused on the lead by using every pout and squint to generate pathos. Despite sometimes feeling uncomfortably like a made-for-TV movie, the film has just enough to elevate the story to cinematic scope with its broad musical numbers and tragicomic asides.
Other performers, from Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Michael Gambon, and Gemma-Leah Devereux as Judy’s most famous daughter Liza, do their best to inject some verisimilitude, but really this is all about Judy. Give a thought to Lonnie Donegan (played in a mugging way by John Dagleish), a man who had the Beatles as his backup band, but must give up his slot when Judy wants one last blast. He sits on the sides, grinning foolishly, but we all know that his immortality is most definitely local and mediocre compared to the woman he’s covering for.
In the end, Judy is more Oscar chum than merely bait. It’s exactly the kind of story and performance that will have awards prognosticators salivating. The film is solidly average, a B-movie with a lead role that’s exactly the kind of sweeping, triple threat magic that Hollywood still craves. It’s a perfect vehicle for Zellweger to make her return to the spotlight, echoing exactly the trajectory of the woman she portrays getting back in front of the crowd. Unfortunately, the two-hour film does little to get beyond the myth of the woman at the center of the story.