‘Judy’ is everything you’ve come to hate about Oscarbate

Images courtesy LD Entertainment.

2/10 The highest praise you could give Judy that it’s a comprehensive rundown in the poorest, most predictable instincts that go into making this kind of movie and a master class in what not to do.

The film recalls the last months in the life of Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger and Darci Shaw) when she headlined at Talk of the Town in London. Judy focuses on her as a hollow, drugged-out wreck of an old showgirl who can’t finish her sets, but can still belt out one or two performances of the ages per night. The film ends just a few months before her death. It also flashes back to her youth when she was first hooked on pills by her own mother to make her work long hours and routinely denied food among other horrifying abuses, but not often enough to bum anybody out.

Because of the way Academy Awards are voted on, voting skews toward movies with older subject matter, which showcase their actors more and which romanticize the Hollywood establishment – or in this case, make it seem not so bad. Judy exists purely to check the boxes as a hollow wave at a Best Actress Oscar filled out into a miserable two hour shlog.

As a first step, Judy explicitly courts extremely old viewers, something that is immediately apparent upon entering the theater. The film depicts a personalized performance of major news events from 50 years ago with the sickly sweet nostalgia of a grandmother trying to get you to forgive her for being racist. My screening was in one of those tiny 50-person arenas tucked into the back corner of the multiplex filled to the brim with seniors all talking at full volume because they’ve forgotten how going to the movies works. One of them in the row above me sneezed, and his snot got all the way onto my cheek. It was gross.

As Judy was conceived as a steel trap to win Zellweger another Oscar, it was shot with the idea that Zellweger would do it all herself and that the movie would be designed around showing how hard she worked. This is common practice and absolutely not how to make a movie.

All cinematographer Ole Bratt Birkeland and director Rupert Goold seem to have done for each scene is plant two or three cameras at most, tell the actors to do their thing and break for lunch. All of the dialogue scenes play out in the exact same dull, over-the-shoulder shot-reverse shot setup. When it got to editor Melanie Ann Oliver, she just passed the problem along to the audience, keeping the number of angles used to a minimum if there were more and not taking control of the scene in any way. There’s not a J or an L cut in the entire movie. Characters say their lines, in full, then the film cuts to the other actor, then they start talking, creating the eerie effect of a conversation without an interaction. This effect is exaggerated by the actors themselves, all of whom seem to have different ideas about how this movie will be paced. After a while, it starts to feel like most of these people were never even in the same room. The entire film lacks energy, and a meek, barely there score doesn’t tie scenes together.

The abject laziness of the camerawork becomes an alarming problem when scenes start to cover Garland’s performances, which are also shot with static coverage setups on the assumption that Zellweger will make the scene amazing all on her own. Instead of a full performance worthy of the cinema that incorporates lighting, sound design, camera movement and the ability to rehearse, we get adequate documentation of a lady singing.

This mentality even becomes an obstacle to getting the narrative across when Garland’s in-diagesis performances start to go downhill, but Zellweger’s performances and the capturing of them stay the same. There’s no change in presentation, and the audience is left to gather that she was supposed to be singing poorly through context clues alone.

This is supposed to be the Renée Zellweger powerhouse performance movie, but they’ve made it by stripping her of all the tools filmmakers have to turn her performance into a powerhouse. Film is an inherently collaborative medium. this isn’t a stageplay that can be dragged forward on individual charisma alone. Zellweger is perfectly cast I guess, but that doesn’t matter when she’s in a movie that seems designed around showing as much of her performance as possible without complementing it. The scenes of a younger Garland with Shaw are ironically much more interesting, so much so that I assume they were done by a B unit who didn’t realize they were supposed to just shoot coverage.

I’m sorry, Renée. You’re still the best.

Judy’s hyper-tailored Academy appeal is also present in its plot alterations. While most of the movie is mostly true, it alters many facts about Garland’s fifth and final husband, Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock), who is portrayed as a stereotypically abusive wannabe manager, a relationship that reportedly fits some of her previous husbands, but not Deans. It also has Garland spend a significant amount of time with a gay couple, which both incorporates Garland’s status as a gay icon and fulfills another Oscar stereotype – they love awarding movies that incorporate LGBT people in a highly visible way.

The scenes of a younger Garland are much better cinematically, but they’re what really turn Judy from a lazily executed film into a truly disgusting exercise in revisionist history. Garland’s substance abuse and emotional problems are framed by the film as her own flaws – even as the film opens on the younger Garland, the scene sets the table for an entitlement complex. Then it cuts to the older Garland dealing with the aftermath of a seemingly unrelated drug problem. The facts of her abuse and that all of this came from the outside are only introduced later in the film as mitigating factors.

This is a common emotional curve, especially for actor-based Oscarbate movies – introduce a character as flawed to get the audience interested immediately, then cultivate sympathy later in the runtime. This process is reprehensible when it becomes, “introduce a character as flawed with drug problems, then cultivate sympathy by revealing that none of this was ever her responsibility.” It evokes and exploits the classic tabloid image of the drug-addled former child star while reframing child abuse as a static character trait belonging to the victim instead of a conscious act by the abuser.

Fifty years after she was found dead on a toilet after accidentally overdosing on drugs she was introduced to by her own mother in elementary school, Garland is still being used by the studio. Judy is a poor work of craft and an additional insult to a star who suffered her whole life. If you were thinking to make time for it, don’t. Her family doesn’t approve either.

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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