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Renée Zellweger’s performance is stellar, but this Judy needs more punch.

The Eyes Have It

Renee Zellweger is Judy Garland
Renee Zellweger is Judy Garland

This one’s all about Zellweger.

There’s something in the eyes and nose — and the hair — that thoroughly captures Judy Garland. It’s astonishing. There are times when it seems like it really is Judy on screen. That’s sheer movie magic.

And Zellweger also belts out a slew of Garland standards, including an emotional rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Yes. That’s Renée’s voice — don’t forget, she was nominated for an Oscar for her acting chops and vocal cords in the screen version of the classic musical Chicago.

But then there are Renée’s lips — when she purses them or smirks, she reveals herself a bit too much. That’s a small nit, though, in a performance that’s sure to garner her fourth nod from the Academy.

A Star Is Born

Setting aside that performance, the movie’s broader ambitions come into question. Garland’s life was tragic, a cautionary tale for all the child stars who followed in her ruby slippers. But as Judy unfolds, there’s an odd detachment; the emotional resonance and transcendence isn’t there to make it a more enduring classic in its own right.

In telling Garland’s life story, this take (based on the stage play End of the Rainbow) burns the candle at both ends. The narrative cuts between a teenage Judy (Darci Shaw in a promising feature debut) and her 47-year-old self (Zellweger, Bridget Jones’s Diary). It was a rough ride all around.

In the early going, there was the callous, cold mentorship of Louis B. Mayer on the set of The Wizard of Oz, whose treatment of Garland — at least as shown here — was at turns fatherly, ominous and creepy. Counter that with Garland 30 years later. She’s burned through four husbands and, with her two youngest children in tow, she finds herself out on the street after her favorite hotel no longer welcomes her. The tab’s unpaid. The goodwill’s shot.

Down and out. Homeless. The career in a tailspin and without a manager to correct its course.

Enter the usual suspects: a harsh Hollywood star machine, a casual popping of pills leading to dependence and an alcohol habit.

The Yellow Brick Road

As with so many lives, Garland’s started out with so much promise. Midwesterner Frances Gumm, transformed into a beautiful starlet. Mayer puts her role in Hollywood in perspective: she’s there to give people dreams. Every town in the country has girls prettier than she, he advises. But none of them have her voice.

All those other girls live ordinary, unadventurous lives. They’re destined to become housewives, have children and live dull lives less than extraordinary. Trouble is, that sounds rather appealing to Judy. Instead, what’s sold as a remarkable life has a steep price. Mayer holds tight control of Judy’s life. Her diet (No cake! No hamburgers!). Her appearance (Do not get your hair wet!). Her social life (Mickey Rooney? No. He’s intended only as a pal, not a lover.). Her birthday (Sweet 16 is celebrated on set two months early to counter scheduling conflicts. A big day in a girl’s life is relegated to nothing more than a publicity stunt.).

Pushed into long days and developing a pill dependency to keep moving, Judy complains of being unable to sleep. It all adds up and it all weighs her down. She lashes out with youthful acts of rebellion and independence, but it’s not enough.

It’s all right there on the screen, right down to Garland’s growing sense of loneliness. Pushed. Drugged. Propped up. No time for fun. No time for a natural childhood. She’s been a performer since she was two years old and her life has never really been her own. Her dreams now belong to those girls out there living those plain lives.

Perhaps the most telling line in the whole show is when Judy quietly confides she’s Judy Garland for only an hour a night. She’s a family person the rest of the time. Or, at least, she sees herself as a family person those other 23 hours in the day.

Talk of the Town

Renee Zellweger
Renee Zellweger

Judy’s heart is in that longing for family. Sure, it’s touching to see her despair over her family life being in such disarray. But there’s a link from the teenage Judy to the 47-year-old that the movie doesn’t fully realize.

It goes back to those conversations with Mayer. The one in which he tells Judy her job is to give people dreams.

A large portion of the movie then focuses on Judy’s run of sold-out shows at Talk of the Town, a swanky theatre in London. Her erratic behaviors come to the fore, her unreliability. The drugs, the alcohol, the sleeplessness. The loneliness.

After one show, she meets a gay couple, two huge fans waiting for her autograph. That turns into dinner. It’s a poignant scene at the couple’s home, an impromptu, late-night dinner of some sort of dish involving eggs. Whatever it is, it’s not an omelette.

Here’s where the movie loses its way in its own ambitions. There are threads between fan and star that could’ve been more fully explored. Their apartment is decorated with all sorts of Judy Garland memorabilia. It’s all built around a true-life phenomenon of Garland having cultivated a large following in the gay community.

That’s all good. It’s fair game. And it culminates with that emotional performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow. The couple is the first to stand and sing as Garland herself falters. It’s the audience of dreamers giving back to the star.

But it doesn’t feel right. Theatricality overtakes history at times, certainly. And this is a good idea, if not a full-on reality. It could’ve been so much more; done so much more to tie that youthful Judy on a mission to provide dreams with the result of that labor 30 years later. It’s close; it almost works. But the passion, the punch in the gut that would take it over the top simply isn’t there.