Judy is an almost too-perfect example of the kind of biopic in dire need of a quick death. Every awards season, some 20th-century icon is given the prestige treatment — a marketing campaign hinging on a transformative lead performance to generate Oscar buzz with a safe director like Stephen Frears at the helm. It’ll be your grandparents’ favorite film of the year and maybe even nab that Best Actor / Actress award if the competition is lacking. (See recent examples like The Theory of Everything and Bohemian Rhapsody). These are not good movies, but they somehow succeed through sheer force of their marketing; audiences are enamored before they’ve even seen them.
Judy’s biggest problem is the same one that plagues the worst biopics. Director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge can’t find a compelling story to tell about acting / singing phenom Judy Garland (played here by Renée Zellweger), who is herself an undeniably compelling specter of Hollywood’s Golden Age. But the film isn’t interested in Garland as a character; it chooses instead to paint her as a larger-than-life victim of Evil MGM Executives, never giving her an inner life. Tragedy can only have an impact if we actually, well, know who we’re watching. For a film obsessed with exploring Garland’s drug-addled foibles, Judy never quite feels human.
The majority of the film follows Garland in her mid-40s during a London tour that ultimately ended with her getting fired and then dead from an overdose in quick succession. An early montage in America quickly establishes her reason for touring in London: she’s almost out of work, dragging her kids along to perform in low-rent clubs and in serious financial straits. With a strong fan base in London still willing to house her in extravagant ballrooms, an overseas tour seems the best career solution.
From there, Judy doesn’t have much in the way of plot, only rather repetitive sequences of biopic cliches — and boy, do we get ‘em all. The scene where Garland, despite being in a total trainwreck state, brings down the house with an unexpectedly moving performance? You bet. The inevitable moment where Garland’s too drunk to perform and humiliates herself on stage? Of course. The new spouse who ends up being a money-grubbing douchebag? Yup. Tearful phone calls to her children that hang with that ominous undertone of being one of their final interactions? Sure!
The most cringeworthy moments, by far, come in the flashbacks, where we’re witness to young Judy’s (Darci Shaw) egregious abuse at the hands of such people such as MGM head Louis B. Mayer (alleged to not only be a control freak, but to have sexually assaulted Garland when she was a child). What happened to Garland in her youth is no doubt unforgivable, a trend whose ripple effects can still be felt in a post-Weinstein entertainment industry. But Judy lacks the craft to depict a subject as heavy as child abuse with any sort of conviction.
Filmed in a faux-Technicolor palette to recall the starring vehicles of her youth, the flashbacks are executed in extremely clunky fashion, with overwrought dialogue and an obnoxiously melodramatic score robbing the backstory of any emotional weight. The scenes themselves, with mustache-twirling studio execs feeding the child star pills and denying her food, would be outright hilarious if they weren’t rooted in genuine tragedy.
Of course, if Judy is going to make any cultural impact, the discussion will start and end with Zellweger’s turn as Garland. The performance itself is perfectly fine, hindered more by the lack of characterization in the script than any choices made by the actress herself. Ultimately, it comes off as a cross between a convincing impression and, in more melodramatic moments, Ellen Burstyn tweakin’ out in Requiem for a Dream. A Best Actress nom is inevitable and, after Rami Malek’s win last year, should merely warrant indifference as opposed to outrage.
When David Fincher directed the decade’s best biopic, 2010’s The Social Network, he used real-life human / lizard hybrid Mark Zuckerberg as a jumping-off point for a Shakespearean drama of uneasy alliances and betrayal. The real-life figure was equally matched by the powerful themes at the story’s center. Judy is yet another genre entry that seems to forget this entirely, thinking it can coast by on an impressive impersonation and a hollow screenplay. Maybe the best way to honor Garland’s memory would be to skip this entirely, and rewatch The Wizard of Oz or A Star is Born.