Sunday, October 27, 2019

Judy Has A Great Lead Performance But a Middling Script

As the movie Judy begins, the titular lead character of Judy Garland (Renee Zellweger) is struggling to keep herself afloat. Money is scarce, she's struggling to maintain custody of her kids and job opportunities are few and far between. The chance for some money emerges in a series of shows in Lond, England, though it means Garland will have to spend even more time away from her kids. That's a prospect she despises, but in order to make ends meet, she agrees to the tour. Doing these shows turns out to be complicated to Garland's struggle with addiction and her time doing this gig brings out both the worst and best elements of Garland's later years in show business.

You've heard it ad nauseum by this point, but the real shining star of Judy is Renee Zellweger's performance in the lead role. Much like Taron Edgerton in this year's Rocketman, Zellweger is given the enormous task of portraying a pop culture icon with a larger-than-life persona and influence as an actual flesh-and-blood human being. Also like Edgerton's turn as Elton John, Zellweger manages to actually not only face this challenge head-on, she manages to excel in it. When she first walks on-screen, any traces of Renee Zellweger vanish from one's mind. You're not seeing Zellweger doing an impression of Judy Garland, Zellwege's managed to capture the tiniest details of Judy Garland's very essence so accurately that you just think you're watching Garland herself.

Better yet, Zellweger manages to make a person out of Garland instead of just relying on mimicry to carry the performance all the way. It's especially impressive how Zellweger manifests Garland's desire to put on a happy exterior while grappling with more complex emotions under the surface. An early scene of Garland saying good-bye to her children through a silly routine involving a dresser totally feels like a natural thing for a whimsical performer like Garland to come up with, Zellweger makes the showmanship of the character come through in creative ways. Even more potent in this sequence is the flashes of emotional vulnerability Zellweger demonstrates as Garland, she makes the anguish she feels about leaving her kids utterly heartbreaking to watch.

Renne Zellweger is doing outstanding work in Judy, the kind of transformative performance that will relaunch her status as an A-list performer if there's even a shred of justice left in the world. As for the rest of the movie, though, it's merely perfunctory and downright forgettable. Screenwriter Tom Edge has opted to go down a tragically conventional route in telling Judy Garland's story. The script is far more interested in rigidly adhering to storytelling touchstones of typical biopic dramas rather than telling its tale in a fashion that would be fittingly unique for a one-of-a-kind figure like Judy Garland. Predictability is a critical flaw of the script, but it's not the only issue Judy has on a storytelling level.

An even bigger issue with the film is how scattered it is on a thematic level, the film can't seem to concentrate on a singular idea to revolve Garland's story around. A quiet sequence involving Garland spending an evening with a pair of gay Garland aficionados is a sweet scene, but it finishes with Garland giving a speech about how the world won't accept anything out of the norm that feels totally detached from the rest of the movie. True, a series of flashback sequences (which feel extraneous in the grand scheme of the movie) do show Garland's identity being corralled, but that's something that doesn't figure at all into the primary storyline about Garland struggling with her addiction and finances. In this portion of the story, Garland's actual personality couldn't be more boisterous, there's nobody holding her back! Even her alcoholism inhibits her in critical ways that rarely explicitly intersect with the world holding her back, addiction is a much more intimate struggle than the circumstances Garland brings up at the end of the aforementioned sequence with her die-hard fans.

There could have been a way to thread the story needle of having your identity stifled into the plot quilt of Judy Garland doing a series of shows in London, but the movie Judy can't quite make that or the other assorted subplots amount to much. That inability to create substance is especially frustrating given just how many storylines and supporting characters (one of whom gets played by 2019 pop culture MVP Jessie Buckley, always good to see her!) are existing in Judy. The material is there to make something thoughtful or entertaining, but director Rupert Goold never fulfills their fullest potential. At least Renne Zellweger is around in Judy to deliver a top-caliber lead performance in an otherwise mediocre movie.

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