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“Saint Judy” Is A Timely Yet Incomplete Biopic

The traditional biopic is slowly becoming a relic of the cinematic past. By and large, films made about real life public figures tend to try and find a new angle in depicting someone’s life. That way, it can never feel recycled or stale. However, some movies are still taking the tried and true path. Occasionally, it still works, but most of the time, it ends up feeling a bit empty. Such is the case with Saint Judy, a well intentioned and undeniably timely biopic that never fully realizes its potential. The story being told is important, for sure. Unfortunately, its depiction leaves something to be desired.

The film is a look at attorney Judy Wood (Michelle Monaghan), who would single-handedly changed the asylum laws in the United States, all in an effort to help save women’s lives. A public defender, Judy accepts a job out west in California working for Ray Hernandez (Alfred Molina), mainly so her son Alex (Gabriel Bateman) can be closer to his dad and her ex-husband Matthew (Peter Krause). She finds Ray to have sold out for a buck, but as a newly minted immigration lawyer, she can’t help but feel for her clients. When she comes across the case of Asefa (Leem Lubany), a woman currently in detention who fled the Taliban, she finds inspiration. As Judy works through the labyrinth of the U.S. justice system, she butts heads with officials of all sort, including those from the now infamous agency I.C.E. Since it’s a true story, you likely know where this will end up, but the closing moments do get you reliably inspired. Sean Hanish directs a script by Dmitry Portnoy, with James T. Sale composing the score and Richard Wong handling the cinematography. Supporting players here include Common, Gil Birmingham, Kevin Chapman, Ben Schnetzer, Mykelti Williamson, Alfre Woodard, and Waleed Zuaiter.

There are definitely things to like about this movie. The story is suitably rousing in the end, Monaghan is strong, and it’s mostly well paced. The film falls into the trap of needing to show tired problems at home, without ever making it add up to anything. That misstep holds back an otherwise solid tale. When the focus is on Judy helping her clients, there’s firm ground beneath the flick. When there’s deviations about her failed marriage, issues with her son, and so on, then it just becomes cliched melodrama. Frankly, the material deserves a little bit better than that. It ends up being the tiebreaker that keeps me from a recommendation.

This is the type of flick that you really want to like. It just uses a hammer too often when a scalpel would have done just as well. Hanish’s direction and Portnoy’s script are paint by numbers, and while Monaghan does a lot with the material, no one else is really able to. Sadly, talented actors like Common, Birmingham, and Molina are absolutely wasted. There’s too much belief in the story and not enough execution in telling the story. It’s all well and good to know that you’re telling an important story, but you have to make the film a compelling one. That’s not the case here, or at least not quite often enough.

Starting tomorrow, audiences curious about Wood’s crusade can take it all in when Saint Judy opens up in limited release. If you love old fashioned biopics, you may find enough here to warrant a viewing. However, if you’re of the opinion that the genre needs to look at more creative means of telling its stories, you’re likely to end up slightly disappointed, much like I was. Again, this is not a bad movie at all. It comes damn close to getting a thumbs up. It just falls a little bit short. Still, feel free to seek it out and make up your own mind…

Saint Judy hits theaters this weekend!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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