There is a moment in Judy that perfectly encapsulates the problems and successes the film has. Judy is set to perform opening night of a long stint in London, singing her hits to a sold-out theater. She is nowhere to be found, drugged up at her hotel. The assistant to the nightclub owner arrives at her hotel to get her dressed and over to the theater. The scene should be played for the harrowing nature of addiction and illuminate the dark place Judy Garland was in during this time. However, the scene is played oddly comical as a beautician poses as a doctor to get Judy dolled up for her performance. One Judy gets on stage, the tone shifts to show the immense talent she has. Renée Zellweger does her own singing in a captivating long take of the entire song. The scene shows how off the film's perspective is while still featuring glimpses of a stirring lead performance.
Judy never decides what it wants to be about. It chooses a dark time in Garland's life, the final year or so of her life, to focus on and yet never wants to get into the dirt of her addiction at the time. She regularly pops pills and drinks but the film pushes these elements to the side. In flashbacks, it suggests that MGM made her into an addict. We see her on the set of The Wizard of Oz being told what to do, overworked and drugged out. Yet the film never does anything with these elements. It instead wants to paint a portrait of Garland as someone driven by the praise of audiences, always seeking the spotlight.
The chronicling of her concert series in London allows director Rupert Goold to indulge in Garland's music and glamor, celebrating her unique voice. In these moments, Judy succeeds in being entertaining. However, the film routinely explores the more tragic elements of her life. It does so thinly, often dropping storylines for long periods. Garland was in a custody battle around the time of her London shows and the film introduces this early on only to leave it for the bulk of the runtime. What this amounts to is a very hallow film.
Much will be made of Zellweger's performance. She embodies Garland on a visual level very well. Her mannerisms, vocal quality and fashion come through accurately. The performance sits between impression and something more substantial. While the singing scenes are impressive and Zellweger fully embodies the role, it feels empty on an emotional level. Zellweger never seems to move beyond the ticks and movements of Garland into something that feels like a real person.
Goold's direction is workmanlike. The cinematography is rather dull, often shooting things like a play rather than a film. The score is often so on the nose that it would be impossible to not know what emotion the filmmakers want you to feel in every scene. Goold tries to squeeze in a half-hearted message about the treatment of homosexuals at the time with a gay couple that comes to see Judy every night. It isn't a wrong move but it never pays off or ties back to the themes of the film.
Judy never picks a point of view. It has no bite when it comes to looking at a legend's dark and tragic late career. The film would have been better set earlier in her life, perhaps during the Carnegie Hall shows. It wants to celebrate her life but often fails due to a lack of clarity and direction.