They don't really make them like Judy Garland anymore, but that's a good thing—"they" are the monstrous studios that treated their actors like cattle; "they" are the ravenous audiences who acted like they could lay claim to the movie stars.
Based on the Peter Quilter play The End of the Rainbow, new biopic Judy finds Renée Zellweger as Garland during the last stage of her life as she embarked upon a series of shows in London, circa 1968. With several failed marriages, one Liza Minnelli and a couple of younger kids in the wings, a homeless Garland is all but forced to tackle the run to make a few bucks so she can be closer to her children, but she's running on the last failing fumes of her falling star and has become a ball of nerves and anxiety.
Certainly the stories of her studio upbringing are almost as legendary as Garland herself; how Louis B Mayer practically tortured Garland as a teen, rarely letting her eat, putting her on a regimen of pills for weight and energy and consistently threatening to take the stardom away. We see some of this, a little bit of Mayer backlit to portray evil, looming and towering over the young Garland (Darci Shaw) as he manipulates her. But then it's back to 1960s Judy post-haste, and no supply of Zellweger sulking in bathrooms and cracking wise to doctors about how four ex-husbands didn't cure her depression can make us feel for her. Instead, it almost feels lazy, like the whole of an iconic woman's existence distilled into too much drinking and a bunch of embarrassing snafus onstage and off to prove how hard her life was. We were already there, frankly, but rarely does this version of Garland make her feel like a human person, even when she literally announces she is. So it's really more like summoning pity than empathy.
Judy starts to lag, which is a shame as all the ingredients are right there for something wonderful. But between the poorly explained relationships, like American Horror Story's Finn Wittrock as Garland's final husband Mickey Deans or a pair of gay men whose scenes feel tacked on by some exec who figured they needed a brief mention of gayness to check some arbitrary box, and all the underdeveloped side characters, the pacing becomes downright bizarre and repetitive. "Will she get onstage?" we wonder to ourselves again and again before realizing we don't actually give a shit since nobody bothered to make it worth our time.
You'll definitely be hearing about Zellweger come awards season as her performance does approach sensational a number of times. But for a better (and weirdly similar) biopic, try the far superior Stan & Ollie from last year.
+Zellweger gets there once or twice
-Feels hollow and manipulative
Directed by Rupert Goold
With Zelweger and Wittrock
Violet Crown, PG-13, 118 min.