Like the similarly titled Stan and Ollie, the new film Judy focuses on a Hollywood legend’s late-in-life performances on the English stage — in Judy Garland’s case, not so much to effect a comeback but as to tread water well enough to avoid drowning.
The movie won’t tell you, but it’s set mostly in early 1969, when Garland’s health was poor and her finances were poorer. She hadn’t appeared in a movie in six years and hadn’t starred in a successful film since 1954’s A Star Is Born. Her triumph at Carnegie Hall was nearly eight years past, her TV show nearly five. What money she did have had recently been embezzled by her previous managers (a fact also left out of the film), leaving her with a giant tax bill and little income.
Desperate to provide for her two younger children, Lorna and Joey Luft, Garland accepts a generous offer to perform several weeks at the cavernous Talk of the Town nightclub in London’s Hippodrome. That’s the background for exploring Judy’s many struggles: with prescription drugs, with alcohol, with child custody, with self-doubt, and with a young new suitor.
The man is Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), a nightclub manager whose upbeat affection and big dreams give Judy hope and the movie some positive energy. Mostly, Judy is a downer, a portrait of self-destruction that gets the crack-up right but can’t quite get inside to pinpoint its source. Sure, a series of flashbacks to Judy’s teen years at MGM (Darci Shaw is a passable young Judy) establish the source of her eating disorders and pill habit. But screenwriter Tom Edge (adapting Peter Quilter’s play, The End of the Rainbow) doesn’t connect the dots: What really made Judy Garland so fragile and unreliable? Even a gratuitous hint of teenage sexual abuse doesn’t provide an answer.
What Judy is left with, then, is Renee Zellweger’s all-in performance in the lead role. She’s got the look down, pursing her lips and squinting her eyes endlessly, and it’s a credible, entertaining portrayal. She’s good in bad moments, but she’s great in the movie’s few moments of real joy, when Judy sees Mickey as her savior or has a good night on the stage.
Part of the problem is that Zellweger is given so few developed characters to play against. Mickey is just a sketch of a well-meaning dreamer; the London club staff (which includes a barely used Michael Gambon) are earnest but thinly imagined. Zellweger’s best foil is Rufus Sewell, as ex-husband Sid Luft, the only person who challenges Judy with hard truths. Their scenes together offer glimpses of Judy’s inner life that are missing from the rest of the movie.
The director, Rupert Goold (True Story), has little to offer to turn Judy from an interesting study in impersonation to an in-depth personality study. He’s a skilled enough craftsman, and the movie looks great, but if he’s got a vision for what audiences should take away from Judy other than “child stars make for at-risk adults,” it’s not apparent.
Grade: B-minus. Rated PG-13. Starts Sept. 27 at Fine Arts Theatre.
(Photo: Twentieth Century Fox)