Nineteen-sixty-eight finds Judy Garland (Renée Zellweger) trying to outrun a ruined reputation. She’s considered past her prime, unemployable and unreliable. Deeply in debt, she needs money to keep her children in a custody dispute.
Her situation complicates her attempts at being a good mother. She includes her kids in the small shows she can book. They live out of chancy hotels and stay up late. When her ex-husband Sidney Luft (Rufus Sewell) insists on a more stable life for the kids, Judy rallies.
Burned in Hollywood, Judy aims for London. Leaving the kids, she takes a lucrative offer to perform at Talk of the Town, a huge club that guarantees sell-out shows.
Judy has bigger problems than a custody battle.
Having lived on a diet of studio-sanctioned uppers and downers since she was barely a teen, she can’t function without a handful of pills morning, noon and night. She washes the pills and her feelings down with alcohol. Desperate for love, she clings to anyone who pays her attention. Sleep is elusive or filled with nightmares about her past as Louis B. Mayer’s favorite emotional punching bag.
Can she find success in London? Or will this be yet another disaster for the beleaguered singer?
Much like the woman herself, Judy should be remembered for the performance, not the plot. The by-the-numbers look at Garland’s tragic final years is saved by Zellweger’s stunning performance. Assuming you know a bit of the Garland story, the film doesn’t look back. Building tension ensues, as when you know a car crash is coming — but when?
Director Rupert Goold (King Charles III) oversees a lovely, if rote, film. A wonderful long take follows Judy from backstage to center stage, capturing the frenetic lead-up and immense energy of her nightly performances. A touching sequence involves a couple of sympathizing English superfans who know how cruel the world can be. Balancing the fine scenes are plot contrivances and dramatic clichés.
All is redeemed by Zellweger’s star turn. Makeup and hair help her look the part, with mannerisms and signature moves completing the illusion. Zellweger gorgeously captures Garland’s trembling nervous energy in her final years. She’s funny, talented and always seconds away from a breakdown. Zellweger also does her own singing, assuming the Garland style rather than attempting to mimic that once-in-a-lifetime voice. It’s a wonderful piece of acting — and a movie well worth the ticket.
Good Drama • PG-13 • 118 mins.
~~~ New this Week ~~~
There isn’t much to laugh about in Arthur Fleck’s (Joaquin Phoenix) life. He’s a clown with dreams of becoming a famous standup comic. But success eludes him, and the pressures of caring for his sick mother builds until Arthur makes a decision that will tear Gotham City apart.
This standalone origin story for one of Batman’s most iconic villains should be fascinating. It’s a sure bet that an intense and interesting performer like Phoenix will plumb the depths of this comic character. More concerning, however, is director Todd Phillips, who tends to barter plot development for easy dramatic beats.
Prospects: Flickering • R • 122 mins.
Lucy in the Sky
After seeing the majesty of space up close, Earth disappoints astronaut Lucy Cola (Natalie Portman). Her happy life now seems dull and small.
This dramatization based on the true story of astronaut Lisa Nowak (infamous for being arrested in a diaper while driving cross country to kill a romantic rival) is a mess. Trying to bring higher meaning to the crime, it comes off as pretentious rather than insightful.
Prospects: Dim • R • 124 mins.
On a mountain somewhere in Latin America, rebels hold an American doctor hostage, taunting their prisoner, training for a fight to come and partying late into the night.
When an attack sends the group into the jungle, they fracture. In the chaos, what will happen to their hostage?
This impressionistic film about fanaticism and madness should be a wild ride.
Prospects: Bright • R • 102 mins.