starring Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Michael Gambon
screenplay by Tom Edge, based on the stageplay "End of the Rainbow" by Peter Quilter
directed by Rupert Goold
by Walter Chaw One problem with hagiographies is that when bad things happen to the sainted subject, it comes off as maudlin and self-pitying. Another problem with hagiographies is that they're boring, since they're largely impenetrable to anyone not already in the choir. Take Rupert Goold's Judy, for instance, a hagiography of one of the two or three most biographied figures from Hollywood's golden age, Judy Garland: Mickey Rooney's erstwhile song and dance partner, Dorothy Gale, gay icon, mom to Liza (and Lorna and Joey), and deeply troubled trainwreck who died of a barbiturate overdose at the tender age of 47. She's played by Renée Zellweger in the film with an eye towards puckish grit and mawkish imitation, imagining a character instead of a person in a movie designed to do exactly the same thing. What's assumed, though, is that people will know going into the film why Judy was essentially homeless as Judy opens; how she thought a run at the Hippodrome (then the "Talk of the Town" nightclub) in the City of Westminster, London might rescue her financial calamities; and what it was exactly that made her so appealing to so many for so long. That's a lot of assumptions and, you know, fair enough, because I can't think of anyone else who'd possibly be interested in Judy, anyway.
The film's most intriguing scene is one in which the spectre of imprisonment for homosexuals in England up until the Sexual Offenses Act of 1967 is raised as Judy befriends an adoring gay couple. Alas, Judy is very good at raising issues (like Mayer's sexual assault of Garland, among other things) and very bad at playing them through. Whenever things start to get a little bit interesting, the film plows through another musical number in a way not unlike the "let's put on a show" productions of Garland's early career. The implication here is that Judy is so alone at the end--despite being married at the time to her fifth husband--because her real partner was the stage. It's the kind of thing that makes you angry unless you're a Judy Garland fan who has already dehumanized her to this place of splendid, pristine idolatry. Zellweger's performance struggles against that yoke as she pouts her lips and careens wildly through the joint like a drunken bull in a broad metaphor. She's all over the place and it works a little when the film matches her with the sudden appearance of dancing girls behind her, or an angry crowd (why angry? Because no one understood our Judy!) throwing their dinner rolls at her when she shows up to give them what they ostensibly want.
Judy is a mess. Judy was a mess. Judy suggests that Hollywood breaks little girls like Judy and Judy's biographers would agree with that assessment. So the only people Judy is for are people who know this much and no more: that they love her as a tragic figure and an entertainer and so will continue to suck her dry through their eyeholes with the same ravenous vigour that sucked Judy dry in her own lifetime. Garland was a genius, but the film isn't as interested in that as it is in pushing the narrative that she lucked into a voice and was just ugly enough to make her a sympathetic everyman for ugly daughters everywhere. Zellweger does her own singing and does fine, though as she is not a genius her performances are distracting; she's a good karaoke singer playing the role of an icon. Imagine the inevitable Barbra Streisand biopic where some poor soul needs to sing like her. The best musical number comes in the apartment of that aforementioned gay couple. Dan (Andy Nyman) plays a version of "Get Happy" on the piano while Judy sings along quietly. He starts sobbing, and for the briefest of moments we get a glimpse of what transformational, generational talents like Garland (and David Bowie, and Prince, and Liza Minnelli, and on and on) do for people on the brink. We love Judy because she's one of us. Judy doesn't understand that. Irony.