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Renee Zellweger is the best part of tragic Garland biopic ‘Judy’

“Judy” never quite captures the highs of a career that put Judy Garland’s name alongside the other icons of her era. “Judy” is really “Judy: The Final Months,” with a handful of flashbacks for context.

Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in “Judy.”
LD Entertainment

“JUDY” — 212 stars — Renee Zellweger, Jessie Buckley, Finn Wittrock; PG-13 (substance abuse, thematic content, some strong language and smoking); in general release; running time: 118 minutes

SALT LAKE CITY — There’s a faint rainbow somewhere in “Judy,” but you have to look through a lot of rain to find it.

Rupert Goold’s Judy Garland biopic is not as comprehensive as its title suggests. Rather, “Judy” only zeroes in on the months prior to Judy’s untimely death in 1969, plus a few fleeting flashbacks.

We start with one of the flashbacks. Teenage Judy (Darci Shaw) is on the set of “The Wizard of Oz,” the 1939 film that will make her a household name, and she’s having doubts. She feels like maybe all this glitz and glamour isn’t the best fit for her. MGM studio boss Louis B. Mayer assures her that she can return to anonymity, but that if she sticks things out, her incredible voice will elevate her far beyond the regular girls, who are destined to “only” be mothers and housewives.

Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in “Judy.”
LD Entertainment

Fast-forward 30 years and we see the downside of Judy’s decision to follow the yellow brick road. Judy — now played by Renee Zellweger — is only in her late 40s, but she looks much older, thanks to years of dependence on drugs and alcohol. She actually did become a mother, but after a small show, she and the kids find that they’ve been kicked out of their hotel and have to crash with their father (Rufus Sewell) — one of Judy’s four ex-husbands.

As far as America is concerned, the stage lights are off and the crowd has gone home. But in London, Judy is told, they still love her. They’ll still pay to see her, too — maybe enough for Judy to keep custody of her kids (daughter Liza Minelli, played by Gemma-Leah Devereux, is all grown up and starting her own career at this point). So off she goes to England for a series of concerts that will hopefully start her comeback.

If there’s an Emerald City that justifies traveling down “Judy’s” long and morose road, it’s Zellweger. She totally inhabits her role, and you have to remind yourself that you’re watching the actress from “Jerry Maguire” and the “Bridget Jones” films. Zellweger captures Judy at a point of reckoning — still recognized, still talented and fully aware that her reputation for being difficult is deserved, but she’s dangerously close to imploding.

There aren’t a lot of highs to go with “Judy’s” assortment of tragic lows, but the London shows offer a few tastes of her old glory. Maybe she’s a little too willing to blow off rehearsals and bank on the muscle memory of her considerable performing background, but Judy can still deliver when she’s not derailed by drink or something else. Devoted fans still linger outside the venue and see her shows over and over again. But always there’s the feeling that even the good things that happen — for example, a blossoming new romance with an entrepreneur named Mickey Deans (Finn Wittrock) — will only lead to more disappointment.

Along the way, we zip back to the beginning to see where things started going wrong. We see Judy’s fabricated relationship with fellow child actor Mickey Rooney, which is a little too real for her. We see adults swoop in to make sure she never eats anything that will threaten her figure, and we watch Judy compensate with the pills that will prove her undoing.

Renee Zellweger stars as Judy Garland in “Judy.”
LD Entertainment

It’s effective, it’s heart-wrenching, but it’s also kind of a drag. The ending feels a little clichéd (it’s one of the few elements of the film that doesn’t seem to stand up to historical scrutiny), and “Judy” never quite captures the highs of a career that put Judy’s name alongside the other icons of her era. “Judy” is really “Judy: The Final Months,” with a handful of flashbacks for context.

The acting is spectacular, the singing is serviceable (and honestly pretty scant considering the subject) and the story is heartbreaking, if not epic. What we get from “Judy” is good, but you get the feeling Judy — and her fans — would appreciate a bit more.

Rating explained: “Judy” is rated PG-13 for adult themes and profanity, including two uses of the F-word.