A film review by Craig J. Koban January 6, 2020

JUDY jj
½

2019, PG-13, 118 mins.

 

Renée Zellweger as Judy Garland  /  Rufus Sewell as Sidney Luft  /  Finn Wittrock as Mickey Deans  /  Michael Gambon as Bernard Delfont  /  Jessie Buckley as Rosalyn Wilder  /  Bella Ramsey as Lorna Luft  /  John Dagleish as Lonnie Donegan  /  Gemma-Leah Devereux as Liza Minnelli

Directed by Rupert Goold  /  Written by Tom Edge, based on the stage play by Peter Quilter

I think we all have our own image in our minds when thinking about Hollywood icon Judy Garland, but I believe that a majority of us probably get whisked away to our first viewing of 1939's THE WIZARD OF OZ and witnessing her angelic voice singing "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."  She was bright eyed, effervescent, and extremely talented, and there was certainly no limits to where her superstardom could take her beyond this point. 

The image we don't want to remember of Garland was that of an emotionally, psychologically, and physically broken down women that died at a tragically young age of just 47 after a barbiturate overdose three decades later, during which time she was engaged in a five week series of London stage shows.  This, of course, brings us to JUDY, which is not a standard order biopic, per se, that chronicles the entirety of this silver screen and stage legend, but rather hones in on this aforementioned musical tour in the UK (albeit with some fleeting flashbacks to her THE WIZARD OF OZ days).  Even though the film is utterly anchored by convincing and fully deep dive committed performance by Renee Zellweger, JUDY depressingly emerges as the kind of trivial and forgettable Oscar bait that neither fully champions Garland's incomparable skills or compellingly deals with all of the complex demons that put her life on a tailspin towards a horrific demise.  This is a competently workmanlike production with a gifted performance, but there's simply not much else here beyond superficial pleasures. 

As JUDY opens it introduces us to Garland at arguably her worst: It's the late 60's and she's in her late 40's, and she's a far cry from the spirited young lady that movie audiences adored and grew up with.  Her life in L.A. is the furthest thing away from a Tinsel Town dream, seeing as she's broke, desperate for any kind of low level gig, and is having great trouble making ends meet and supporting her young son and daughter.  Her rightfully fed up and concerned ex-husband (a solid Rufus Sewell, in a small, but crucial role) has had enough of his wife dragging their poor kids from one show to the next, robbing them of their childhood.  After Judy pitifully asks for a place to stay after one high end hotel declines her as a result of poor credit, he declines, only allowing for his son and daughter to remain so that she can clean up.  This is a decidedly hard proposition for Judy, seeing as Hollywood has all but given up on her and she's quite addicted to booze and drugs.  Her prospects look bleak. 

 

 

Fate steps in when an exclusive five week nightclub engagement falls on her lap, which she begrudgingly agrees to (it takes her awfully far away from her children and to London, meaning that she'll be all alone and trying to acclimate to a new country and a new series of performance challenges).  Her handler thinks that this is the opportunity of a lifetime for Judy, seeing as she'll be backed by a sizeable orchestra, a potential for new glitz and glamour on the stage, and a solid opportunity for her to re-brand herself and reclaim some of her Hollywood street cred.  Plus, there's the money too, which Judy desperately needs.  Things go south, though, very early upon her arrival, and not only does the hostile and combative Judy not want to rehearse with her new stage mates, but she continues to pill pop and drink like there's no tomorrow, which has multiple negative ramifications on the quality of her performances.  It's only a matter of time before Judy crashes and burns...permanently. 

I will say that JUDY - based on that plot description - is absolutely not a sunny and rosy portrait of its titular star.  One thing that director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge do with reasonable levels of success is to frame an understanding of what led Garland down such a dark and bleak path and, as a result, it doesn't take the obligatory path of glamorizing its subject for easy hero worshiping purposes.  Yes, Garland deserves to be revered - her talents were indeed extraordinary and she had a presence on screen like few others of her era.  Still, JUDY isn't out to place her on a high pedestal of nostalgic feel goodness.  This movie understands and relays one of the more damning aspects of her life and career, that of a history of being used and exploited by powerful adult industry players that used her for quick financial gain. 

This is epitomized in the film's multiple flashbacks, during which time we see the mid-teens Garland (Darci Shaw) having a chance meeting with studio mogul Louis B. Mayer, who plants a disturbing seed of low self worth in the soon-to-be screen star with some hauntingly predatory behavior.  He matter-of-factly tells the impressionable young girl that she's too fat and unattractive to make for a worthy leading lady moving forward and that a thousand other actresses could take her place on the set on THE WIZARD OF OZ, but he re-assures her that the only thing keeping her employed in Hollywood is her singing voice, which can't be touched.  This builds towards montages featuring Garland's careless handler spoon feeding the unknowing teen actress pills to curtail her hunger and slim her down while later given her other drug cocktails to put her to sleep every night.  It was this toxic combination of studio head mental abuse and the ensuing drug abuse forced upon Garland that would later give way to her life spiraling out of control.  What an appalling shame ...and waste.  It's no wonder she overdosed and died before she hit 50. 

Evidently, I have to talk about the woman behind the adult Garland here, and Zellweger (now 50 herself) has reached a stage in her career where playing this part seems like a right fit.  I think the former Oscar winning actress resists the urge for outright mimicry (she's not exactly a dead ringer for Garland, verbally or physically), but she instead wholeheartedly inhabits the deeply flawed and troubled essence of this performer at a truly bad time in her career.  I'm most certain that a majority of filmgoers will be most taken in with the film's bravura concert sequences, and Zellweger (commendably doing her own singing) crushes this moments and makes you believe she's the second coming of the late legend.  I, for one, was more taken in with the quieter and more introspective moments, during which time Zellweger pulls back the layers of Hollywood excess and ego and shows Garland for who she was at the time: a distressed woman slowly teetering towards implosion.  Without question, Zellweger is the hypnotic focal point of JUDY. 

However, maybe that's also the problem with this film.  JUDY is so creatively vanilla bland and serviceable, which is built around Zellweger's tour de force performance.  As a result, the film essentially becomes a showcase for the actress herself...and not much of a thoroughly intriguing, layered, and thoughtful expose on this complex women.  The Garland shown here is manic, anxiety plagued, socially introverted, and rendered nearly comatose by all of the pharmaceutical aids she was drowning in.  JUDY is a dark and dreary experience, made purposely, to be fair, but this film ultimately never tells us anything about the thornier details of Garland's existence that countless other books, docs, and articles haven't already.  Garland is one of the most widely covered actresses of the Golden Age of Hollywood that bringing an level of freshness in exploring her life and times might have been a fool's errand, cinematically speaking.  I was so fascinated by THE WIZARD OF OZ behind the scenes flashbacks that a whole endlessly intoxicating film could have been made about that instead, leaving what we see in JUDY feeling of the been-there, done-that variety. 

Considering the bounty of sensational dramas about real life actors/singers/performers - like WALK THE LINE, RAY, or the more recent ROCKETMAN, all films featuring cherished titans of their industries with clear cut dark sides that battled addictions - JUDY seems a bit too scattershot and forgettable to make a sizeable dramatic dent.  The mostly conventional, paint-by-numbers approach to the material here certainly doesn't distract from Zellweger's Academy Award worthy performance here, but as a complete package JUDY is a biopic that simply didn't have any lingering staying power with me days after screening it.  And great biopics should expand our understanding of their subjects instead of just regurgitating historical tidbits here and there that we're already abundantly familiar with.  Somewhere, well over the rainbow, there's a far better Judy Garland drama to be made than what's on display in JUDY. 

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