September 12, 2019

SHOWBUZZDAILY Toronto Film Festival Reviews: “Judy” & “Motherless Brooklyn”


JUDY (Roadside – September 27):  Oscar bait in its fullest form, a showbiz celebrity biography built around the work of a performer making a comeback, requiring said performer to alter appearance and render services beyond mere acting.  Judy the film has already become the story of Renee Zellweger the Best Actress candidate, a story that’s melded with that of Judy Garland and her own comebacks and tragedies.  (For what it’s worth, the recent track records for such campaigns haven’t been stellar, with failures for Michelle Williams in My Week With Marilyn and Annette Bening in Film Stars Don’t Die In Liverpool–the only such winners in the past 20 years were Marion Cotillard in 2007 and Reese Witherspoon in 2005.)  Zellweger works very hard in Judy, as do her hair, make-up and costuming personnel, and she has transformational moments, notably in her musical numbers.  She’s limited, though, by the slightness of the film around her.  Judy, directed by Rupert Gould from a script by Tom Edge, confines itself to a few months of Garland’s life in late 1968, when the performer, uninsurable and unhireable in the US and out of funds, went to London for a series of concerts.  Although only 47 years old, Garland was fragile from a lifetime of personal and career ups and downs and a regimen of amphetamines and barbiturates that had been fed to her since childhood.  Her latest marriage to Sid Luft had broken up, and she was unable to support her children.  Edge’s script sets all this out, but without much depth, and it takes a supportive, sympathetic approach to Garland that ultimately amounts to little more than fan service.  Gould has stretched the clearly restricted budget fairly well (the photography is by Ole Bratt Birkeland, who’s shot several episodes of The Crown), and there’s a fine cast gathered around Zellweger, including Michael Gambon, Rufus Sewell (as Sid Luft), Finn Wittrock and the increasingly exciting Jessie Buckley (as Garland’s UK assistant), but this is largely a one-woman show.  Zellweger often seems to be acting the acting of Judy Garland, with intonations and mannerisms that seem duplicated from recorded footage, and the material doesn’t provide the kind of insight that could have fleshed out the performance.  (Her work is also disadvantaged by being so close in time to Michelle Williams’ astonishing Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon.)  Judy‘s star, if not the film itself, deserves applause, but not a standing ovation.

MOTHERLESS BROOKLYN (Warners – November 1):  Edward Norton earns an A for effort for directing, screenwriting and starring in Motherless Brooklyn, a project with an unusually high level of difficulty.  The source material itself, a celebrated novel by Jonathan Lethem, provided plenty of challenges, being a detective story where the sleuth, a young man named Lionel Essrog, has Tourette’s Syndrome.  But Norton multiplied his tasks by completely overhauling the plot of the novel, pushing it back from a contemporary setting to the 1950s and installing a thinly fictionalized Robert Moses character in the antagonist role of a New York-set Chinatown, with a theme of the power-hungry racism underlying urban renewal politics.  It would be a fairytale ending to say that Norton pulled all of this off, but the result is badly paced at 144 minutes, with flat action sequences and an overdose of speechifying and emotional stakes that are often unclear.  Still, some aspects of Motherless Brooklyn work well, starting with Norton’s own performance, which avoids the kind of showboating Lionel’s disease would obviously allow, concentrating on his determination and emotional struggles.  There are also strong performances from Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Willem Dafoe and Michael K Williams as people who figure into the mystery, although Alec Baldwin, Leslie Mann and Bobby Cannavale gives performances that are more rote.  (Bruce Willis appears briefly as Lionel’s mentor, whose murder kicks off the story.)  Dick Pope’s photography and the production design by Beth Mickle are both strong, the latter particularly in underplaying the period atmosphere.  It took Norton 20 years to bring his version of Motherless Brooklyn to the screen, and the truth is that the project could still have used another rewrite and time in the editing room.  What’s here is still admirable in its ambitions, and in the doggedness it took to complete.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."