Close to forty minutes pass before Renée Zellweger sings in Judy, and it’s a wonder that it takes so long. Director Rupert Goold’s adaptation of the musical End of the Rainbow tracks Judy Garland in her tragic final passage of her life, as the forty-seven-year-old makes her way through a tumultuous tour while grappling with the demons of her troubled showbiz life. Zellweger inhabits the role of the jaded, soul-searching musical icon pretty well within a dreary and unremarkable saga that finds her grappling with her past, contending with pill-popping addictions and a broken family. It’s a familiar story that Judy struggles to bring something fresh, at least until Zellweger takes the mic.
At least the movie isn’t entirely a paint-by-the-numbers biopic. Judy opens with a teenage Judy (a miscast Darci Shaw) as a ghoulish monstrosity lords over the young performer in the form of studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery). “I make movies, Judy, but it’s your job to give those people dreams,” he says early on, peering down at her as they wander down the yellow brick road. It’s a spooky starting point, but Judy returns to these fragmented, unconvincing memories so often that they start to feel like padding for a story that’s spinning its wheels from the outset, draining both the attention and momentum from Zellweger and the main plotline. Garland’s contemporary circumstances unfold as a series of histrionic showdowns, with the occasional bittersweet tangent. A bundle of frustration and fatigue, Garland shrugs off rehearsal sessions to drink and pop pills, wallowing in her dark history. The movie speeds through some occasional bright, charming spots, including her fifth marriage to Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), but there’s a peculiar flatness to their romance that has a shoehorned-in quality. Garland’s ongoing fears of repercussion from the overseer of her tour (Michael Gambon) hold some measure of intrigue, but they’re similarly one-note.
But when Garland takes the stage, Judy comes alive. Goold is primarily a theater director, and his last film, True Story, showed little connection to that world. But his theater roots serve the energy of a movie profoundly invested in the psychological turmoil that drove Garland’s extraordinary presence. The Judy Garland story is an often told tragedy of greatness by fame, by the entertainment machine, the audience’s habit-forming adoration and bad personal choices. The movie adheres to that template, delivering the usual scoundrels, courtiers and simplistic psychology. There might be charming moments, like when Garland forges with a couple of gay British fans. Her decision to hang out with the pair for an after-hours dinner is compelling enough to maintain a one-act play of its own (thanks to Zellweger and Andy Nyman’s performances). Still, even this touching subplot only goes surface deep.
Throughout Zellweger delivers more substance and feeling than any of her work of the past decade (granted, there hasn’t been much since she took a six-year hiatus). In her most musical-esque turn since Chicago, she sings live, and does a pretty uncanny job of channeling Garland’s performative strengths, bringing a lived-in quality to each performance. Yet all of that power and credibility collapses whenever Judy returns to the airless melodrama that afflicts the rest of the plot: Yes, Garland’s inability to retain custody of her children is another sad development in her downward spiral, and drunken meltdowns set the stage for her demise. But in Judy, they can often come across like placeholders to keep the story moving along.
Fortunately, Judy delivers in the climactic performance that’s an inevitability from the start. When Zellweger sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” to a spellbound audience, the song concludes with a contrived moment sure to invite some eye-rolls. But the emotion sinks in anyway, in part because it’s nearly impossible to screw up “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” Judy tries hard to inject brightness and pleasure into this bleak picture as this lost, radiant woman grabs onto one last chance. It shows the highs and some of the lows, piles on the strained smiles and upbeat tunes, embracing the woman even as it tries to temper the despair that come from watching someone die in slow motion. Working best when Zellweger is on the literal center stage, Judy tries its best to recreate Garland’s legacy, but ultimately only delivers simplicity and surface-level deepness.