When the term “Oscar bait” gets thrown around in film criticism, it’s usually in reference to a film like “Judy.”
Typically a movie with one central performance based on true events featuring showy, clip-worthy monologues destined for an awards season reel, “Oscar bait” is a film cliché used to describe movies that wouldn’t exist if studios couldn’t buy their way to winning accolades.
The story writes itself, a former Academy Award winner with nothing much of substance on her resume in many years makes her comeback bringing to life a classic Hollywood icon.
Critics, audiences and, most importantly, award voters are supposed to revel in this sort of pandering because it honors not just the performer bringing the part to life, but the person being honored with the biopic.
It’s a standard model used to great success by the likes of Rami Malek in last year’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Gary Oldman in 2017’s “Darkest Hour” and Meryl Streep in 2011’s “The Iron Lady.”
This time, the performer is Oscar winner Renée Zellweger and the role is that of Hollywood starlet Judy Garland in the final years of her life.
“Judy” finds the illustrious Garland in her mid-40s, broke and trying to make a living with a concert series at London’s Talk of the Town revue so she can purchase a home for her two young children.
It’s a meandering, melodramatic biopic adapted from the award-winning play “End of the Rainbow,” that veteran stage director Rupert Goold brought to the big screen as a sweeping musical drama hinging on a knockout lead performance which just doesn’t get there.
Zellweger’s Garland feels like her Roxie Hart from 2002’s “Chicago” imitating Liza Minnelli, an over-exaggeration that neither says anything new about the subject nor comes across as anything but someone delivering lines as if every word were italicized.
The Oscar winner has no discernable on-screen chemistry with anyone she shares a scene opposite, least of all Finn Wittrock and his caricature turn as Garland’s future husband Mickey Deans.
This makes the quick, deep relationship the two form at a party hosted by Minnelli all the more baffling. Audiences can’t buy into their connection and when things inevitably begin to get rocky, Garland’s devastation feels excessive and frivolous.
The film relies heavily on nostalgia on the part of its viewers to enjoy montages set to classic Garland tunes like “The Trolley Song” and “Get Happy” that establish the illusion of a quality performance. Zellweger genuinely sings her heart out, but the entire affair is far too contrived to ever really resonate with audiences.
“Judy” goes to great lengths to inform Garland’s final years by showing a young Judy in flashbacks being tormented by the weight of stardom and a Harvey Weinstein-esque controlling producer Louis B. Mayer.
These flashbacks are done in traditional biopic style and yet lack consistency throughout the film. A large 45-minute segment in the middle third of the film could have used one of these flashbacks to break up the monotony of the latent melodrama.
Darci Shaw gives the film’s best performance as a doe-eyed young Garland, though Goold and screenwriter Tom Edge don’t give her Judy much to do besides being mildly rebellious before submitting to the rigors of the studio system.
Much of the rest of the supporting cast is talented, yet entirely forgettable as the screenplay muddles through Garland’s London run with a bittersweet awe culminating in the most ridiculously contrived final number in recent movie musical history.
Regardless of the picture as a whole, Zellweger is far too popular in much too big a role not to be a surefire nominee for Best Actress come awards season and is the clear frontrunner to win her second Academy Award. However, viewers looking for a dynamic performance about a singer coming apart at the seams should check out the vastly superior and shamefully underseen “Her Smell” with Elizabeth Moss.
Somewhere over the rainbow, there’s a good film to be made about the life of a Hollywood icon like Garland.
Unfortunately, “Judy” largely misses the mark and will be forgotten as soon as Zellweger’s seemingly certain acceptance speech concludes.