‘Judy’ fails to find rainbow’s end in new biopic

Scott Powell

Watching Renée Zellweger in Rupert Goold’s “Judy,” Hollywood’s latest offering of American nostalgia, is a little bit like watching a firework show underwater. The power is all there, but it’s extinguished by its droll surroundings. The question is, who is to blame? The water or the schmuck who thought this would be an appropriate locale for a pyrotechnics show?

The frustrating thing about “Judy” is that it has potential for greatness but never quite finds its footing. This potential doesn’t just come from its subject material, though. Certainly a film telling the story of one of the most bombastic personalities, Judy Garland, to grace the silver screen has potential in and of itself, but filmgoers have learned too well from films like “Bohemian Rhapsody” and “Rocketman” that the star power of a film’s subject is not enough to carry the entire movie.

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What makes the failure of “Judy” so disappointing is the fact that it does so many things right, but it still can’t tie its strong elements together in a cohesive theme or compelling story. This, in turn, makes it seem as if the strong artistic choices were simply a product of happenstance rather than the kind of raw emotion that should drive a good piece of art.

While a lesser actress could have easily made the part into a mere regurgitation of the cartoonish persona the public has come to associate with Garland, Zellweger imbues her with a distinct humanness.”

The most glaring example of this is Zellweger, whose Oscar-worthy performance captures all the brashness, theatricality, vulnerability and complexity of the icon she portrays. While a lesser actress could have easily made the part into a mere regurgitation of the cartoonish persona the public has come to associate with Garland, Zellweger imbues her with a distinct humanness. This is difficult to dig out in someone like Garland, who, throughout her life, was disguised and defined by layers upon layers of wild, sensational personas.

However, for all of Zellweger’s magnificence and brilliant command of her character, one actor can only carry a movie so far. After all, a character is not defined by their lively actions, but also the liveliness of their supporting cast’s reactions to them. The supporting characters in “Judy” are about as lively as cinder blocks. 

Contrast and conflict are the cornerstones of drama and are what makes a story great. A great drama has the ability to find the connection between these two competing forces. The greater the competition, the greater the payoff when a solution is finally reached.

Zellweger’s performance certainly captures Garland’s internal conflict, but the problem is that the film doesn’t give any substantial indication of what it is that drives this inner battle. What in Garland’s life has led her to this point? What is she trying to cover up with this unhinged persona?

This isn’t to say that the film doesn’t make an attempt to forge this connection.

It dips into Garland’s history as a child star, depicting the abuse she suffered at the hands of her demanding stage mother and notorious fat cat studio executive Louis B. Mayer. The problem is that merely saying Garland had a traumatic childhood isn’t enough. The general public already knows that traumatic childhoods often lead to troubled adulthoods. The purpose of a movie is to help us better understand why that is.

What is it that Garland did not receive in her childhood that she is so desperately searching for in her adulthood and that has led her so deep into this unyielding pain, misery and confusion? The clips from her childhood suggest that it is longing for a normal life. She wants to have a birthday party, she wants to eat hamburgers and french fries, have a boyfriend, go to school and do all the things she has been denied as a result of her stardom.

However, this longing is not expressed in the segments of the film detailing Garland’s adulthood. Here, her underlying motivation primarily centers around a desire to be with her children but also drifts at certain points into a desire to find true love, while also wanting to please her fans.

This is where “Judy” really falls flat and where it fails to rise above other biopics of its kind. It doesn’t quite reach what it is that the protagonist really wants or needs. There’s no underlying motivation. Despite the feistiness, passion and drive that show through in Zellweger’s performance, Garland’s choices don’t drive the story. Instead, she just drifts along, adapting to whatever her situation throws at her, finding meaning in whatever cause advances the plot. 

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Thus, the strength of Garland’s character, and the strength of Zellweger’s performance, are dampened by the minimal impact their choices have on the plot and the people around them. The stakes are there, but they’re so varied that the movie doesn’t have time to really capture their weight or significance.

This confusion is only cemented by the closing scene of the movie, in which Garland, after collapsing on stage while singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” is reinvigorated by her audience getting to their feet and singing the classic song to her.

“A heart is not judged by how much you love, but how much you are loved by others,” a famous quote from “The Wizard of Oz,” flashes across the screen. It turns out that it doesn’t matter if you’re completely miserable, lost and confused your entire life, so long as you have a big fat fan club that thinks you’re pretty neat. 

Perhaps if the film had done more to highlight what Garland’s fans meant to her personally, apart from simply being the gauge by which she measured her cultural relevance, this ending would have some weight to it. But this isn’t firmly established in the film.

There’s a brief, one-off scene in which Garland has dinner with a couple of fans she meets while leaving one of her performances, but apart from that, there’s really no indication that her fans are deeply important to her. On the contrary, it’s her idolization of her fans and her desire to please them above anyone else in her life that leads to her downfall. 

Garland’s stardom being the thing that redeems her in the end seems to directly contradict the theme implied by the rest of the story — that one’s joy and purpose comes from their internal understanding of themselves and their identity, not the persona they project to the world.

Despite rising above many of the pitfalls that plague biopics, the lack of a consistent theme and the disjointed arc of its central character lead “Judy” to fizzle out despite its explosive potential.

Scott Powell can be reached at entertainment@collegian.com or on Twitter @scottysseus.