Judy is 2019's Bohemian Rhapsody (for better or worse)

09/28/2019

Renée Zellweger in Judy. Cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland. BBC Films
Renée Zellweger in Judy. Cinematography by Ole Bratt Birkeland. BBC Films

by Chase Hutchinson

It's about that time of year where biopics begin making the rounds and while Judy isn't the worst of these types of films, mostly due to a solid central performance from Renée Zellweger, it isn't as good of a film as it could have been. It also does generally avoid some of the more common pitfalls of the biopic genre. The most egregious of these, especially in the musical biopic, is the overuse of montage and the need to cram an entire life's worth of touring into one movie rather than be more selective of what the focus will be. Judy's narrative scope is much more narrow as it takes place in the final months of her life as she attempts to resurrect her career and win back her kids who she has had to give up due to her not having a stable living situation. There is inherently tragedy infused into this futile effort as the audience knows that Garland will not live to achieve this but that is the best description that can be given as to what the film is attempting. 

The problem is, I am doing a lot of work for the film in describing what the focus is as the film struggles immensely with establishing a purpose to its story. Obviously, some narratives can do without a purpose to instead focus on character development but this one is not it. It continually seems to forget why she is doing what she is doing or what is the driving force for her. I can infer that it is her children but they show up shockingly briefly at the beginning only to disappear entirely save for brief glimpses that always feel shallow. The narrative ends up feeling aimless when most of the surrounding characters are given almost nothing to do in the story. Most notably, Garland's personal assistant Rosalyn Wilder is left with no depth whatsoever. Played by Jessie Buckley, who was phenomenal in 2017's Beast, she is largely wasted and has minimal characterization despite her immense talent. Nothing is developed and nothing is used with her character save for a brief hint about her kindness towards Garland as she begins to understand her struggles. 

In response to what I'm sure are the many thoughts running through your head about how of course a film called Judy should be focused on Garland herself, I want to say I agree. However, for the other central character to be kept mostly in the background means that the story has to really be confident in that main character to carry the story. So while Zellweger does a spot-on job of portraying the vulnerability of her character, it felt narratively uneven to have no one else seem like people in this story. The members of the band? No idea who they are or what their role is except to be on stage with her. The man who runs the events there? He just pops up now and again to inject minimal conflict. Her ex-husband? The same. The charming couple that attends almost all her shows? In one scene and gone the next. Her new husband? Just generically scummy with no real depth given to what drew them together.     

Renée Zellweger in Judy. BBC Films
Renée Zellweger in Judy. BBC Films

The inherent struggle to biopics such as this one

The problem that is far too common in this genre is a simple one: the story will regrettably have to follow a path that is well worn which leaves little room for growth beyond what has already happened in history. That isn't to say this can't be done well even with the most well-known stories. 2016's Jackie was ambitious and bold in its construction creating a haunting final product. That story is one that almost everyone knows and yet it still managed to craft a story that didn't fall into just shallow imitations of history. 

That is, largely, what this film falls into. The standout moments are when Garland will stay away from the iconic moments that are well known particularly the scene where she has dinner with the couple who keep coming to her shows. These scenes feel the most resonant and it's therefore unfortunate the scene didn't have the patience to sit with them more. This is most centrally due to the fact that Garland was never valued and dealt with a lot of self-esteem issues yet here she was connecting with people that genuinely cared for her. It's a moment that never happened in real life but was one of the best scenes. If it had continued, it would have been a moment to grow both her as well the characters who had idolized her but alas it is passed by as quickly as it arrived.

Renée Zellweger and Andy Nyman in Judy. BBC Films
Renée Zellweger and Andy Nyman in Judy. BBC Films

The film struggles with tone and how to grapple with pain

This is perhaps my biggest problem. The impending and tragic death of Garland is something that the film can't ignore. It's always present and hangs over the story. This relates to what is said prior but this film, in particular, mishandles this somber tone. It does this by having a tone that is jarring and out of place in the way some of the scenes are constructed. Most notably, the scene where Garland is late to her first show is bizarre to watch. Watching her personal assistant and other members of her team come to get her feels like it is meant to be comedic. There is a joke where they lie saying that one of them is a doctor but it's really all a ploy to get her dressed to go give her performance. This is especially strange as this feels like the exact coercion that she was forced to endure as a child, which is shown through flashback, and yet it is presented here as good-natured fun. Oh, Judy is drunk and not in her right mind, better trick her into coming with us. Nevermind the subtext of her problems with substances, this is just a wacky adventure. 

This becomes more and more clear towards the end of the runtime that the film doesn't have the tact to give the story the reverence it deserves. Instead, the film is sporadically respectful and more often than not overly schmaltzy. I said that it was this year's Bohemian Rhapsody which I believe will prove only more true as awards season comes around. Zellweger will likely be nominated and I don't have a problem with that. This film will hit just the right sweet spot as Hollywood loves movies about themselves even if it's one that shows how the system destroyed someone's life. But no, it still handles the story at too far a distance without grappling with the deeper ideas just as the Freddie Mercury biopic did.

What makes it all the worse, is there is a scene that I am pretty sure reuses a room from that movie except it is dressed up as a medical examination room when it clearly isn't that. That speaks volumes about how this film just isn't quite sure what it is and the ending almost entirely loses any goodwill it built up by closing with the sappiest ending. Not only did it not feel genuine, but it also used a line from the trailer that should have been used earlier and then built upon. Instead, it just ends there with so much potential left unfulfilled.