The career of Renée Zellweger continues to fascinate in its diversity. The actress first gained attention as an excellent RomCom foil in Jerry Maguire. Despite missing out on that Oscar nomination (which would have been extremely deserved), she quickly became an awards season mainstay. From 2001 to 2007, she received six Golden Globe nominations and won a Supporting Actress Oscar for Cold Mountain. Bridget Jones’s Diary launched an unconventional franchise and she led Oscar juggernaut Chicago to a Best Picture win. Yet by 2010, Zellweger seemed done with the conventions of Hollywood. She disappeared, not just from movies, but from TV as well. She would only appear in six films and TV series this decade.
Her absence from Hollywood makes that sixth film all the more important. Zellweger’s return to public life corresponds with her most high profile and difficult role yet. Judy follows the icon Judy Garland as she embarks on a series of shows in London. Just months after this tour, the icon would pass from an accidental overdose. In the years since her passing, it has become common knowledge that Garland’s life was filled with drugs, both on her terms and from studio insistence. All of this is present in Judy, but Zellweger’s own return creates a metanarrative too good to pass up.
Frankly, without Zellweger’s involvement in the film, there would be no reason to watch the uneven Judy. Zellweger performs the hell out of the role, putting tons of effort into nailing an approximation of the actress. Wisely, she does not go for striking similarity or mimicry. You can see every bit of the work going into the performance. This version of Garland comes across interpretation, which further delivers the metanarrative of Zellweger’s own career. While Zellweger’s return will yield a career boost, you can tell that the actress understands the icon’s desperation. At once, the turn feels like a strong tribute to Garland, and Zellweger working through her own issues.
Zellweger does suffer from over-exaggeration and over-acting at times. It can be distracting as she sways or feels lost as other characters talk to her. Yet the effort feels necessary in Judy because, without her effort, the film would truly be lifeless. The rest of the cast feels dead on arrival, and outside of a pair of scenes with Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira, the rest of the cast cannot match Zellweger’s intensity. This issue does not fall on Zellweger, but instead on the script. The other performers simply do not have the material, try as they may to keep up.
Weirdly enough, the film overstays its welcome. Despite spanning a little over two months, the two-hour runtime feels unbearable. What happened to Garland in the public eye has always been tragic. However, the film’s insistence to reiterate every bad thing that happens to Garland feels excessive. Even worse, they focus on the ever-present drug and alcohol use. The film grinds to a halt as a result. Losing about thirty minutes of footage would go a long way towards making this film more enjoyable.
However, Judy also features some excellent work from its below-the-line team. The costumes pop off the screen. Jany Temime provides plenty of period-appropriate garb for the icon, as well as those in her orbit. Dressing Zellweger takes center stage, and her wardrobe features immaculate dresses and prints. The former Harry Potter and James Bond costumer deserves recognition for her work in this film. The production design recreates The Wizard of Oz and Hollywood sets with stunning accuracy. Perhaps the set design gets the most credit for the internal and private havens Judy inhabits. One emotional sequence midway through the film gets lifted thanks to immaculate details in the trinkets and pictures on the walls. These teams help Zellweger’s performance feel authentic, which becomes necessary as the other elements falter.
Unfortunately for Judy, other experimental biopics in recent years reinforce the weakness of this film. Other than Zellweger, the film never hits its true stride. It’s too safe and by the book to leave any real impression. Instead, this feels like a movie that wants to win awards, but it also feels cynical and heartless for that reason. Judy thinks it has a lot to say, but cannot do so in any unique way. Zellweger surely stamped her ticket to an Oscar nomination, with a potential win within reach. If voters love Zellweger enough, a Best Picture nomination may be in the cards (it seems very unlikely). Costumes, production design, and makeup nominations in play. Despite these standout elements of the film, Judy feels like a disposable biopic.
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