‘Judy’ thrives on a noteworthy Renee Zellweger performance

Let’s say you have been gifted with one of the greatest voices in the history of mankind. If you are asked at a young age to become something that will rob you of many joys in the world and push you into a depressive and self-destructive state before you are 30 years old, would you do it?

Judy Garland was an actress with an amazing voice, one that she used later in her career to keep the candle lit. What you saw on the big screen and on the stage was a version of herself that she allowed you to fixate on, but never truly get close to. Her life away from the glitz and glamour of Hollywood was anything but pretty and enjoyable.

In Rupert Goold’s new film, Judy, we are treated to the final months of Garland’s life, which was a triumphant yet ultimately tragic affair. Brought to vivid and luscious life by Renee Zellweger, we see an aging star trying desperately to keep her life balanced while burning the candle at both ends. In order to keep the life going, Garland went to London for a series of shows that would mark her comeback or the ultimate demise of a career.

Zellweger is amazing in the lead role. She is the reason to see this film. Talk about a movie star disappearing into a role and coming out from behind the stage as something else entirely different. You won’t find Bridget Jones, that homicidal outsider from Cold Mountain, or the love of Jerry Maguire’s life on this screen. Think of Zellweger’s Oscar nominated work in Chicago, but strung around a more sad soul. Then you will have Garland.

Outside of Zellweger’s award-worthy performance, there isn’t much to sing about here. Goold’s direction, coupled with Tom Edge’s script (which was adapted from Peter Quilter’s stageplay, “End of the Rainbow”), is elementary. It’s a paint-by-numbers production that doesn’t do much to stand out. The production design, score, and overall look and tone of the film is routine and standard practice for a biopic. This is like being in a kitchen that doesn’t look that great, yet has a juicy filet mignon sitting in the middle of it. Go for that, but don’t look around too much.

The rest of the cast is either just okay, as in Michael Gambon, or a cardboard cutout of an actor, like Finn Wittrock. There just isn’t much there for support.

Let’s put it this way. I didn’t know much detail about Garland’s life going in, but it didn’t take too long to start putting the pieces together about how the movie would go. It’s not a surprising or shocking turn of events. You know how the dominoes are going to fall before the third act even begins.

What keeps you glued to the screen is Zellweger. I don’t think she’s given a better, more all-encompassing, performance than this film. She inhabits the sad soul of Garland, crawling completely into a woman who was more talented than most but couldn’t find a proper way to manage her acts or life in normal life. When you turned the lights on, she was there and luminous. The second they went off, though, things started to tumble. Zellweger takes you on that ride, even if it is a true solo performance here.

In the end, I’d recommend Judy for Zellweger’s performance. It’s just like her London shows. With everything else collapsing around her, Garland was able to get on stage and sing everyone’s night away. While the production around her is aggressively mundane, Zellweger amazes.

She makes Judy a worthwhile cinematic adventure.

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