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‘Judy’: A role that got away from Renee Zellweger

The actress seldom rises above tribute act in her portrayal of Judy Garland in career descent.

Renee Zellweger sings “The Trolley Song” as Judy Garland in “Judy.”
LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

Give it to Renee Zellweger, she leaves nothing in the tank in “Judy.”

She sings up a storm and does an impressive impersonation of the iconic and famously troubled Judy Garland, but for all the mannerisms and flourishes and go-big-or-go-home gestures, the performance never resonates as a fully fleshed-out biopic character portrayal on the level of Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles or Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn or Angela Bassett as Tina Turner.

It feels more like an Oscar grab than a true disappearance into character.

By the time we reach the end of the rainbow, we’ve seen a Judy Garland who had just two speeds: reckless and manic and fidgety and dangerously out of control, or just this side of comatose due to massive consumption of alcohol and pills combined with a deep depression.

It makes for an exhausting viewing experience.

Little surprise this is an adaptation of a stage play (“End of the Rainbow,” from 2005.). While undeniably moving at times, “Judy” eschews nuance in favor of an often loud and pathos-soaked tone, whether the clearly unhinged, late-career Judy is engaged in yet another shouting match with an ex-husband (or her latest and obviously doomed romantic interest), or the teenage Judy (played by Darci Shaw in flashback scenes) is living an absolutely miserable existence, with every facet of her life controlled by the MGM studios.

Save for those periodic visits to the late 1930s, “Judy” is set in the winter of 1968-69, when the financially strapped, long-past-her-movie-prime, 46-year-old Garland has to leave her young children behind in the States while she books a desperately needed running engagement at the Talk of the Town nightclub in London, where she is still considered to be a major star.

Onstage and off, Judy is almost always “on” — delivering one-liners as if she’s the lead in a screwball comedy, treating everyone around her with condescending, superficial friendliness, as if they should be thrilled to be in her mere presence. She’s needy and narcissistic and a hot mess, but when she gets it together long enough to belt out “The Trolley Song” in a lavish production number in front of a capacity crowd, we’re reminded of why she became such a beloved star in the first place.

Zellweger’s voice doesn’t have the rich, full, heart-piercing range of Garland’s, but she can carry a tune to the finish line. (Darci Shaw as young Judy is never required to sing, as all of her scenes are backstage or off the lot, with Richard Cordery’s monstrously menacing Louis B. Mayer verbally abusing and manipulating Judy, and his minions force-feeding her diet pills and forbidding her to have a cheeseburger or a slice of cake at her studio-staged 16th birthday party.)

Rufus Sewell manages to create a fully realized character in relatively little screen time as Judy’s former manager and ex-husband, Sid Luft, who still cares for Judy but is long past the point of putting up with her irresponsible flights of madness and wants to gain full custody of their two young children.

Finn Wittrock plays Judy Garland’s fifth husband, Mickey Deans, in “Judy.”
LD Entertainment/Roadside Attractions

Finn Wittrock oozes oily insincerity as Judy’s fifth husband, Mickey Deans, who is clearly working Judy for his own gains. Rising star Jessie Buckley (“Chernobyl,” “Wild Rose”) does what she can with a thinly drawn role as Judy’s handler in London, who is saddled with the thankless task of making sure Judy makes it to the venue every night, regardless of how intoxicated or hung over or otherwise incapacitated Judy might be.

A subplot involving two gay men who worship Judy and attend nearly every show and become friends with her is well-intentioned but terribly overwrought, particularly in a climactic scene that’s more eye-rolling than heart-tugging.

If you look at 1960s footage of Judy Garland, you can see how Zellweger admirably captures certain mannerisms and traits. There’s no denying the sincerity and effort behind her performance, which is sure to attract the attention of more than a few awards-season voters.

Still. From start to finish, “Judy” feels more like a stylized tribute act than an insightful interpretation of the real thing.