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Over the rainbow

Zellweger outmatches the melodrama of Judy



Renée Zellweger in Judy

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If you want to understand who the real Judy Garland was, you need to see her life onstage, not off.

That ironic point is made (albeit unintentionally) by Judy, a new biopic which focuses primarily on the final months of Garland’s life. Renée Zellweger stars as the legend who died too soon—at age 47, of an accidental barbiturate overdose—in a transformative performance that transcends the film’s weaknesses. When the story stops trying to tell us everything about Garland and simply lets Zellweger show us, that’s when Judy is truly revealed.

The opening act portends a laborious slog. Based on the stageplay End of the Rainbow, director Rupert Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge give us exactly the kind of tragic conventions we expect from the life of a child star: overworked, overmedicated, body-shamed and psychologically manipulated. 

Heavy-handed flashbacks of abuse at the hands of cartoonishly boorish studio mogul Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery) are intercut with late-1960s Judy: pill-popping, broke, on divorce No. 4, fighting for custody of kids from husband No. 3, and an all-around trainwreck whose star is fading. 

The first 20-ish minutes depict a formulaic variation on the kind of Hollywood cautionary tale we’ve seen countless times before. A more economical approach could’ve condensed these banalities to one sequence or conversation, possibly even a few concise, sharply observed lines.

But when Garland finally arrives in London for a series of concerts that would prove to be her last, Judy becomes more focused and compelling, at times mesmerizing, and a showcase for the best performance of Zellweger’s career. The film still falters occasionally into dysfunctional melodrama (namely with the shyster who would become her fifth husband), but when Garland is in her element—whether while soaring on her iconic talent or being sabotaged by her vices—Zellweger shows us more than any amount of exposition ever could.

This becomes profoundly clear in the first London stage number, one which Goold presents through a single, unbroken full-song take. What the entire first act was toiling to convey is finally made authentic—and moving—in that one uncut moment of Judy baring her soul through music. Zellweger does a far better job carrying the weight of Garland’s troubled life than the movie ever does sensationalizing it.

The only effective subplot outside of the theatre is a fictional one involving a closeted gay couple that Judy befriends after a show. These two men never existed, but concocting them is exactly the kind of license that a biopic should take, especially when needing to condense the essence of a person. The two men are fully formed as well, not mere catalysts, which helps to humanize Garland even more.

As each onstage sequence illuminates Garland further, I found myself wishing for a more ambitious approach to the material, such as a dramatized concert movie or an all-out musical. Fittingly, it’s on the stage where the film crescendos, giving Judy the poignant, cathartic well-deserved encore life never did. 

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