Is there a better way to kick off a review of perhaps the most legendary performer of the 20th century than a sobering take on an entire genre of filmmaking? There probably is but ask me if I care. I am just about to swear off biopics at this point. It is not that they cannot be good but I almost feel as though there is a simple-cut-and-paste algorithm these filmmakers follow to produce these story-less acting highlight reels. I can live with a film being of poor quality. I can live with a film taking a risk and falling flat on its face if you can tell the filmmakers genuinely put their all into it. What I have difficulty stomaching is giving praise to a film that does nothing to differentiate itself in any way. And unfortunately, “Judy” is the type of film that has all the flash of an Oscar contender while providing nothing substantive. The film is so pretentious and aimless that if Renée Zellweger was even slightly less convincing as Judy Garland, I would issue warnings to all of you to avoid this film at all costs.
To be fair, Renée Zellweger is perhaps the only positive aspect of the film. I may question the effort of the filmmakers, but I will not insult her by insinuating that she did not put every ounce of her blood, sweat, and tears into this performance. Inarguably, this is the most transformative role she has ever taken and she immaculately becomes the late, great actress and singer. As far as impressions go, I sincerely doubt you will ever find a more accurate portrayal of Judy Garland, which is furthered by the fact that she did all of the singing herself, and for that, Zellweger deserves our praise.
But her performance runs into some issues with me, that may be more of a personal gripe than an objective critique. Mainly, I feel she is overacting in some scenes. Yes, Judy Garland was that type of flamboyant personality but every action she takes, every line she delivers, and every slight twitch she wears seems to be delivered with the over-the-top showmanship of an amateur Shakespearean stage actor auditioning for Hamlet. Sometimes, it just feels too much, and you wish in the more intimate moments that maybe she would have gone for a more understated approach. But, to be fair, I was never alive at the same time as Judy Garland so maybe this is how she displayed herself at all times, and that would not be the fault of Zellweger.
I guess the reason this bothers me is that the film exists solely for an excuse for Renée to become Judy Garland. There isn’t a clear message or story here, so for this to be justification for the film to simply exist, I feel it needs to be damn near perfect. Some people may say that it is, but I just don’t feel it does enough to warrant me sitting in a theater for 2 hours to ultimately learn nothing. Let us be honest here: the film is just a vehicle for Renée Zellweger to garner award buzz, which she will no doubt get. However, the character of Judy doesn’t seem to learn any lessons, only just endure hardships and sing. She never learns to take responsibility for her own actions or reconcile with her past in any way. She basically suffers and does drugs until consequences find her, then she sings again and people sing along and clap.
And that is a shame because there are significant hurdles set up for her to overcome, but instead of conquering them, Judy just remains the same until we are told the movie is over. They do explore the traumatic experiences Judy had growing up in Hollywood and how it shaped her into the person she is, but none of those subjects are ever resolved, just displayed. This creates a startling contrast to her final line (which you can see in the trailer above) “You won’t forget me, will you?… Promise me you won’t”, which seems so forced. Being forgotten was quite literally never discussed before that moment and it is supposed to be this grand dramatic moment of closure. That is not what this film was supposedly about and I am left wondering why Judy really did anything she did if that was what was motivating her all along. If the blame belongs to anyone, it is director Rupert Goold, who should realize just how out of place and unearned that line is.
There are also many faults with the writing of this film. All of the classic tropes are milked until they are dry and it almost seems shameless. For starters, there is a seemingly formulaic execution of events. Judy will do something publicly that will be followed up by an obligatory intimate conversation in an otherwise silent room. Judy will display significant volumes of emotion that will lead to an eventual drug-induced breakdown, followed by a performance that is either brilliantly executed or embarrassingly fumbled. Then the process is repeated enough times to fill out the runtime and then we are told that Judy dies at age 47, and the credits roll.
Another one of my biggest issues with regards to the writing is with the character of Mickey Deans, who is criminally hackneyed. From the moment he was put on screen I thought I knew exactly what his role in the film would be, and as it turns out, I was 100% correct. It seems there is always a sleazy love interest in biopics that begins as an uplifting force in the title character’s life, but ultimately ends up using them for personal gain until they eventually hurt the main character. A lot of times this character is a manager or an agent, but they always try to profit off of the titular star and transform from a supportive crutch to an abusive leech. It is a routine we’ve seen in “Rocketman” and “Bohemian Rhapsody” in just the past year, and wouldn’t you know it, Mickey fits that token role in “Judy” as well. My issue is that, with these biopics, the filmmakers are always flexible with factual events, so why does this same element always appear? Maybe it is a studio mandate that a character fitting this bill has to be in a film like this but they did not even give us enough time to explore anything about there relationship. I still have no idea what they liked about each other or why they eventually grew to resent each other. The relationship seemingly happens then falls apart with very little mentioning of a shift in dynamics between them.
I do not want to beat a dead horse here but there is one other issue I feel I need to talk about. The technical aspects of filmmaking are the elements that most people will not specifically focus on but will ultimately affect how everyone views a film. The cinematography and video editing in “Judy” I found to be very lackluster. There is a consistent technique utilized for all of Judy’s intimate moments, which is the use of shaky-cam. It is a common technique that is usually implemented to instill a sense of chaos in a scene. I just found the way it was utilized in this film to be too obvious. Only the frames containing a close up of Judy’s face use this technique, which could be effective if not for the seemingly random yet abundant quick cuts away from her face to someone else’s face who is not displayed in shaky-cam. Frankly, Renée’s performance is powerful enough that the use of shaky-cam seems redundant to portray the unease it is aiming for and it comes off as gratuitous.
To say the film is unwatchable would be unfair because the leading performance given by Zellweger is certainly worth seeing for yourself. However, the film objectively fails to accomplish anything other than giving her a spotlight to act and sing. Many of my issues with “Judy” can easily be attributed to the entire biopic genre and it may not be fair to burden this particular film with the sins of everyone else. There are some strands of potential in the film that no one ever really cares to see through until the end, which is a shame. When it comes down to it “Judy” does not do enough to differentiate itself from any of its predecessors and is only worth seeing if you are a fan of the late Judy Garland.
I would give “Judy” a lackluster 4.5 out of 10
Starring: Renée Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock, Rufus Sewell, Darci Shaw
Directed by: Rupert Goold
Runtime: 1 Hour and 58 Minutes