Though it features a solid performance from Renee Zellweger, Judy ends up feeling like a very safe and formulaic biopic. One the one hand, it does show us Garland at her lowest points, but does so in such a reverent and sanitized manner that the proceedings come off as very calculated to maintain a PG-13 rating. Don’t confuse me with someone who thinks the only movies that can be masterpieces are R-rated ones, but this seems like a fairly generic story of fame gone wrong and one that, performances of “The Trolley Song” and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” aside, could be copy and pasted from various made for network TV biopics.
This works as a star vehicle for Zellweger but falls short in the writing department. I arrived at the theater not knowing that much about Judy Garland’s personal life, yet I could tell everything I needed to know, or at least everything the script wanted me to know, about nearly everyone else around her from the first moments they appeared on screen. Everything from the score to the composition to the script lacks subtlety in introducing these one-dimensional characters. Judy is fully fleshed out. But for most of the running time, there aren’t any other compelling characters, just walking, talking plot points. That leaves Zellweger to carry almost the entire film. The only time the script gives her anyone interesting to interact with is when she spends an evening with a gay couple who are as confused as they are excited about this Hollywood legend wanting to eat omelettes with them. This subplot is delightful in parts and quite moving in others. It’s one of the few times the film shows us why Judy Garland was a legend rather than telling us with obvious dialogue.
Before seeing Judy, I had read a lot about Zellweger’s performance. It’s too early in the year and in awards season for me to say if I think she is the most deserving of the lead actress Oscar/Globe/SAG/etc. I can say that it is certainly a worthy performance. People have been giving the Academy and Zellweger grief for 15 years about her win in the Supporting Actress category for Cold Mountain. I’m not convinced it was a terrible choice, though it clearly was a Harvey Weinstein campaign that paid off and it will remain a head scratcher for eternity as to why anyone at Miramax or in the Academy thought Zellweger’s performance in that film was better than her co-stars Kathy Baker or Natalie Portman. Anyway, if Zellweger does return to awards stages for her work in Judy, I don’t think many people will be complaining about it being an undeserved win 15 years from now. She owns this movie and does particularly great work in the second half.
I did read some reviews where critics complained about Zellweger’s singing. I didn’t think it was bad. For the time in Garland’s life that was being depicted, I think it’s okay that her singing isn’t perfect. It’s not supposed to be. If the film had chosen to de-age her and have her portray Garland singing on the set of A Star Is Born, then Zellweger’s singing would be more of a problem. I’ll just say that I only winced at the sound of her voice when I was supposed to. I found most of the musical performances enjoyable. People who say her covers of Garland classics were awful clearly haven’t stopped by karaoke night at any of DeKalb’s bars.
Ultimately this isn’t a bad film, and it’s probably one you should see just for Zellweger’s performance. Just don’t expect more than a one woman show. Judy is a colorful character, but everything around her is black and white.