I find it difficult to be too hard on a film that is so irrevocably buoyed by its lead performance, and such is the case with Judy, a film which wouldn’t have passed muster without its star. For, admittedly, there is a lot here that I found lacking, all of which still bring down the film’s quality despite Renée Zellweger. Rupert Goold’s direction, for instance, is all over the place, with his camera placements and blocking being especially erratic. Some scenes are shot too closely, impinging on the actors’ ability to breathe through their role; others are done in awkward positions that don’t manage to capture the action in the best light. When he gets it right, the film’s look is adequate at best, but it never reaches the kind of transcendence that ought to compliment Zellweger’s performance.
Another element that hampers her is the structure itself, which zigs to and fro from the present to Judy’s time playing Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, where she was appallingly treated by Louis B. Mayer and her handlers, who criticized her looks and kept her on a drug-controlled regimen to ensure the filming schedule was not compromised. The desire to explain Judy’s drug addiction and physical deterioration via these upsetting glimpses into her childhood are too easy a way to simplify what was, in actual fact, a lifelong struggle with abuse and low self-worth that went far beyond her short time doing The Wizard of Oz. It leeched into every corner of her career, involving a slew of terrible and uncaring people, and it did not relent until it produced the hunched shell of a woman that Zellweger plays here. Obviously, the film is too strapped for time to cover Judy’s trials expansively, but it’s also disingenuous to funnel everything so easily into what she suffered during The Wizard of Oz. It’s a shortcut many biopics make, unfortunately, so seeing it done here didn’t surprise me.
Here’s the big “but” I’m making: none of this ends up badly affecting Zellweger overall, who plows through the imperfections with a go-for-broke performance that finds stratospheric highs—particularly when she’s singing. Judy Garland, as beset as she was with her personal demons, was also one of the greatest performers in showbusiness, and Zellweger emulates that grandeur beautifully. No, her voice cannot quite match Garland’s swooping contralto, nor can she command the stage in the same way. We must be resigned to the fact that Garland will forever be one-of-a-kind, and no amount of mimicry can cover it. Yet Zellweger conveys Garland’s emotional honesty and investment in a way that gets to the heart of this beloved legend. She puts herself into these songs while also giving another part of herself to the audience in the same way Garland did, finding the core truths of it all in the process. It is, in fact, rather a shame we don’t get more of Zellweger performing, for it’s in these moments that we’re stopped in time and given our full money’s worth. In these moments, this venture—as irritatingly simplistic as it can be—justifies itself, for Judy’s insurmountable legacy is brought back to the fore and younger audiences can fall under her spell through Zellweger’s superb recreation.
In fact, I think this is how the film works best: as a primer for the uninitiated who don’t know about Garland beyond The Wizard of Oz. Those who already know her story won’t find anything new and must rely heavily on Zellweger’s portrayal to find satisfaction (which is easier to do, even if some naysayers will insist otherwise). Everyone else will have Zellweger and a largely accurate depiction of Garland’s final years. Though they were not particularly happy, the film also recognizes Garland’s devotion to her children and her fans and takes great care to emphasize her infectiously outsized personality that could quickly fill a room. It could have dwelt extensively on her demons, thus turning this into the most miserable biopic in recent memory, but it doesn’t—and thank goodness for that.
It may not be an insightful tribute to her legacy, but Zellweger’s concerted efforts elevate it to a notch above mediocrity, and considering how much worse it could have been, I’ll take it.