Punchin’ Judy Show

Renée Zellweger barely salvages maudlin Judy Garland biopic.

Re: Judy, the new drama about singer/movie star Judy Garland: The movie is merely okay but Renée Zellweger is sensational.
For most audiences, the ones who have a general idea of Garland’s career and might be casually interested, that may be enough information on which to proceed. For the true fans, those who can never get enough Garland, it’s certainly no obstacle – they’re going to see their idol no matter what. It’s the former group of moviegoers, the wait-and-see crowd, who have the most to gain or lose from Zellweger’s uncanny impersonation of the Hollywood legend.

Garland was wised-up, in the most showbiz-jungle sense of that term. She’d been through it all. The child-actor star of The Wizard of Oz (played by as a girl by Darci Shaw) endures probably illegal but clearly cruel treatment from MGM boss Louis B. Mayer — portrayed by Richard Cordery as an icy, sinister, borderline child molester. Mayer’s studio handlers pump their teenage cash cow full of pills to control her weight and keep her awake through a demanding work schedule.

Garland’s happy-sad story has been well documented. Judy — a British production directed by Rupert Goold from a screenplay adapted by Tom Edge from Peter Quilter’s book End of the Rainbow – keeps returning to her youth in flashback, as if to never let us forget there is a reason why the fragile, alcoholic, pill-addicted, suicide-prone, middle-aged insomniac we see before us in Zellweger’s acting job, has gotten to that point. Not even young Judy’s innocent crush on frequent costar Mickey Rooney (Gus Barry) goes unpunished. Throughout her life, her personal relationships could never stand up against her history.

By the time we finally get to Zellweger’s Garland in 1968, she’s broke, heavily in debt, and exhausted. Locked out of a hotel for nonpayment, she drags her young children to the home of their father, her ex-husband and producer Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell), before patching together a U.K. nightclub engagement in a desperate bid to get straight. In London, the impresario (Michael Gambon) and his designated Judy-whisperer (Jessie Buckley) bear an uncomfortable resemblance to her old bosses, and England is too cold and damp, but Judy has to soldier on. She has nowhere else left to go.

Zellweger inhabits the face, figure, and voice of her subject like a restless ghost. The Garland we think we know – painfully thin, nervous body language, always on the brink of a breakdown – is all there, alongside the hard-earned showbiz witticisms. Zellweger’s vocal control is remarkable, from Garland’s trademark skittish giggle to her performances. Even though Zellweger’s singing voice (she does her own vocalizing) is only a pretty good approximation of Judy’s famous tremolo, on the stage of the Talk of the Town she belts out sturdy covers of such Garland standards as “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Come On Get Happy.” And when it comes time for “The Trolley Song” and the show-stopper “Over the Rainbow,” we’re so caught up in Zellweger’s playacting we’re ready to believe.

Director Goold, a BBC-TV regular, carefully inserts just enough character-acting excelsior to give the legend some needed breathing room. Garland’s fifth husband, Hollywood musician and lounge lizard Mickey Deans (Finn Witrock), is someone only a delusional person could fail to see through. One of the movie’s most maudlin bits is the pair of (unbilled) bashful middle-aged gay men she bonds with late one night after the show. Still, it’s a kick to see skiffle songster Lonnie “Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor” Donegan (John Dagleish) as the undependable Garland’s back-up act at the Talk of the Town.

And yet. Garland’s story has had the life drained out of it through repetition. The Zellweger-Goold version excels in its musical interludes but lags quite a bit in the weepy procedurals. The annals of showbiz are overstocked with tales of Deteriorated Divas: Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, Rita Hayworth, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston, Nico, et al. What makes Judy stand out? Garland’s irresistible – if cringe-worthy – pathos, as filtered through Zellweger’s comeback-worthy pretending. Go ahead, wallow in it.


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