Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 17, 2019)
After a busy acting career in the 90s and 00s, Renee Zellweger went fairly dormant through much of the 10s. As a commercial project, she returned with 2016’s Bridget Jones’ Baby, and she takes on a “prestige” film via 2019’s Judy.
A biographical look at entertainer Judy Garland, the film concentrates on her later life. In winter 1968, Garland (Zellweger) heads to London to perform a series of sold-out concerts.
These shows act as the framework to examine Garland’s life, as we view parts of her past as well as her then-present. As she works through her concerts, Garland conflicts with management and her ex-husband Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell). She also romances Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a much younger man destined to become her fifth husband, and she copes with drug addiction.
In addition, we find occasional flashbacks to teen Judy (Darci Shaw). During the shoot of 1939’s Wizard of Oz, Judy finds herself under a mix of pressures, and these continue in her early career.
As I mentioned earlier, Judy gave off a significant “Oscar-bait” feel when it hit screens in fall 2019. Combine Zellweger’s “comeback” with dramatic material and trophies looked destined to arrive.
Perhaps they still will, but Judy got a reception that made this less inevitable. Actually, it took in good reviews, but it fizzled at the box office.
I’d guess Zellweger will earn an acting nomination and that will be that. The film just didn’t make enough of a mark for it to muster additional awards.
I can’t call this a tragedy, as I don’t find a lot about Judy to stand out as memorable. While wholly watchable, it offers fairly standard biopic fare.
When the film works, it does so mainly due to Zellweger. At times she threatens to overact, but I suspect her apparent vamping remains true to the real Garland.
Given her drug use, personal issues and long span as an icon, Garland likely behaved in the diva-ish ways seen here. Zellweger occasionally relies on the over-the-top side a little too much, but she also manages to ground Garland when necessary.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers don’t really cobble together much of a movie to surround Zellweger’s performance. The film relies so heavily on all of Judy’s ups and downs that it doesn’t bother with much beyond that.
This leaves Judy as somewhat episodic and unfocused. Granted, some of this becomes inevitable, but I still feel like the end result becomes more preoccupied with scenes and less interested in a coherent narrative.
I do like the movie’s basic emphasis on Judy’s later days, as I prefer biographies that maintain a tight focus. Too many try to cover so much territory that they become little more than “greatest hits” reels.
Given that it sticks mainly with one short span, Judy comes with the ability to dig into this important time frame with reasonable depth – in theory, at least. In reality, the film doesn’t take advantage of this potential as well as it should, as the basic lack of cinematic focus neuters the material.
In addition, the flashbacks to Judy’s youth can turn into a distraction. These scenes basically exist as blunt exposition, for they set up the root of Older Judy’s problems.
Judy could’ve handled this information in a less obvious, clunky manner. The Young Judy scenes pop up solely to tell us “Here’s Why Adult Judy’s a Mess” in big, flashing lights. Yes, this material offers insight, but the scenes don’t integrate well.
Zellweger ensures that all of this remains moderately compelling. Judy just seems too superficial and erratic to hit a home run, though.