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Under the Lights

Renee Zellwegger channels Judy Garland in new biopic

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As the actor and singer Judy Garland, Renee Zellwegger is held in tight closeup: a bundle of nerves dosing herself with pills, mouth crooked and trembling, wincing from cigarette smoke and bad memories. Half the time in Judy, she knocks you out, half the time you want to knock her out. Starved down to a shadow, Zellwegger's bag-of-bones Judy is a wraith in her final year working.

It's 1968 and the 47-year-old is a huge star in London. Her insomnia and vast need for love tortures her. Her personal life is in smithereens; back in L.A., her ex-husband Sid Luft (perennial rotter Rufus Sewell) is trying to get custody of her two young children. Meanwhile, she's courted by Mickey, a persistent younger man (Finn Wittrock) of such untrustworthiness that his very presence should set off every burglar alarm for blocks.

Zellwegger embodies—impersonates may be the correct term—Garland and her vast yearning for applause. But without the the amphetamine-fed megalomania you hear in the tapes Garland made to soothe herself. There she sounds more like Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Unlike Judy Davis' superior 2001 version of Garland, this victim is missing the other half of what made the woman behind Dorothy Gale such a sacred monster, a chronic no-shower and a meltdowner.

Director Rupert Goold delves for backstory in tinted postcard images of MGM, where Garland underwent a species of child abuse—overwork and over-medication.

On stage, after the film's slow build, the performance of "By Myself" is just about perfect; well orchestrated and reflecting the dazzle Garland emitted. Also affecting is a very touching sequence about a late night with a pair of gay stage door johnnies (Andy Nyman and Daniel Cerquiera), who Judy flusters by revealing that their idol is just a lonely person who'd like to go get some dinner in a city that shuts down at 11pm. (Judy's production design makes a point: Swinging London took place in a drab, decaying town that badly needed a coat of paint.)

There's a word for a lot of Judy, and that word is schmaltz; I preferred the previous arrangement where she'd sing "Over the Rainbow" and we'd cry, rather than the role reversal here.

'Judy' is playing in limited release.

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