Playing a genius is never easy. Witness the spectacle of “Judy,” a glimpse at the life of Judy Garland. Renee Zellweger grabs the role, wrassles it, huffs and puffs mightily, and uses her own singing skills to approximate Garland’s voice.
The part still defeats her.
In fairness, “Judy” doesn’t give her much help. A plodding account of a few weeks in the last year of Garland’s life, the film fails to find anything new, or even dramatically appealing, to say about this legendary figure.
The setting is 1969 London, where a cash-strapped Garland puts on a sold-out engagement at the Talk of the Town club. She’s left behind her two youngest kids with ex-husband Sid Luft (a quietly exasperated Rufus Sewell) in Hollywood.
Given Garland’s rocky history with insecurity, tardiness and substance ingestion, the engagement has its problems. The movie sets up Judy with a sympathetic handler (Jessie Buckley), yet fails to build a relationship between them.
Buckley, by the way, is an exciting actress whose own talents (especially playing an unstable singer in “Wild Rose”) are in the tradition of Garland’s own. But she’s wasted here.
We watch Garland fret, befriend a couple of gay super-fans (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerqueira) and impulsively pounce on a handsome young impresario, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock). Not much interrupts the downward spiral.
As though trying to provide psychological explanations, screenwriter Tom Edge includes flashbacks to Garland’s youth. On the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” young Judy (Darci Shaw) endures bullying and chugs down an endless supply of pills to help her perform.
If you’re a fan of Hollywood, you know the yellow brick road did not lead to happiness. “Judy” repeats the idea, without expanding on it.
We’re left with watching Zellweger try to capture the essence of a great star. She gets some of Garland’s sauciness — an aspect of Judy’s personality that sometimes gets left out of her tragic life story — and the loneliness, too.
The problem is, you always see the effort. Zellweger burns up so much energy getting the tics and gestures down, she doesn’t really go beyond impersonation.
And then there’s the voice. Instead of lip-synching to Garland’s songs, Zellweger uses her own singing voice. She can handle a tune, and she makes some vocal nods in the direction of how Garland sang, but … come on. Nobody sounds like Judy Garland.
Without Judy’s full-throttle emotional attack, you find yourself watching the onstage performances of “By Myself” and “The Trolley Song” and (but naturally) “Over the Rainbow” and wondering what all the fuss is about.
There’s a great story in the star’s all-or-nothing approach to showbiz, that desperate need to entertain and be loved at the cost of having an ordinary life. This movie doesn’t have much empathy for that kind of need. But it’s a big reason we remember Judy Garland.
“Judy” (2 stars)
Renee Zellweger plays Judy Garland with a great deal of visible effort, but it’s hard to replicate a showbiz genius — and by sticking to a difficult time in Garland’s life, the movie doesn’t help. Also, Zellweger’s singing voice can’t approximate Judy’s full-throttle emotional attack, and you end up wondering what all the fuss was about. With Finn Wittrock.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Alderwood Mall, Pacific Place, Seattle 10, Thornton Place