Funny how the title character of Bridget Jones's Diary--the diary, that is--seems rather tangential, thrown in mainly for its own sake. But let's face it: A film based on British author Helen Fielding's wildly successful book certainly isn't going to take a different name, any more than it's going to cast a British actress. (Too many Americans to please!) Indeed, after a lengthy search, Renée Zellweger got the part, and while I'd been indisposed toward her scrunchy-faced sweetness, I'll confess that she does come through winningly in the role.
For the few who don't know what that role entails, let's dispense quickly with the plot. Finding herself at (gasp!) 137 pounds and the lowest point in her "singleton" existence one Christmas, Bridget resolves to get a grip on her life and stop dating "fuckwits." Her plans, never all that solid to begin with, promptly go awry when her boss, ultra-fuckwit publishing exec Daniel Cleaver, starts eyeing her--or at least her miniskirts. (As Cleaver, Hugh Grant plays intriguingly against type, replacing his usual befuddled stammer with a glimmer of steeliness.) Soon the two are canoodling, as the Brits like to say, and things seem too good to be true--because, of course, they are. Meanwhile, lurking on the fringes of Bridget's social life is one Mark Darcy, an esteemed lawyer with a stick up his ass, played by the brooding, swoon-worthy Colin Firth. 'Nuff said, as anyone who has read Pride and Prejudice--or seen the film adaptation in which Firth plays this Darcy's namesake--already knows more than enough.
Bridget Jones's Diary seesaws merrily all over the place, wedging high-minded asides in between unimaginative, Ally McBeal-style soundtrack bits (e.g., Aretha Franklin's "Respect," the Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men") formulated to draw the largest possible audience. The scope of its unevenness is neatly represented by the opening and closing credits. In the first, set to Eric Carmen's "All By Myself," we see a boozed-up Bridget moping on her sofa and then, suddenly, lip-synching--which is amusingly cheesy until you realize that she's really into this, at which point it becomes curiously intimate and raw. The closing credits, on the other hand, feature "home movies" of Bridget as a gamboling child--a rather literal attempt to suggest a fated fairy-tale ending, but which slides into a creepy semi-sexualization of a four-year-old.
On the bright side, even though they imported an American to play Bridget (and Zellweger does nail the accent), the Brits thankfully didn't go in for our penchant to sanitize everything, especially women. Even in American ugly-duckling romantic comedies such as Never Been Kissed and Miss Congeniality, there's always the transformation to a swan. Not so with Bridget, probably because director Sharon Maguire, a real-life friend of Fielding's (and the model for one of Bridget's friends), has a background in documentary. Maguire insists on naturalism in her protagonist, and she records it in close-up detail. The lank-haired Zellweger picks at her nails and scratches her chin absent-mindedly, while the camera lingers on angles that accentuate her round (dare I say puffy?) visage. The actor's much-ballyhooed weight gain, an admirable triumph for a De Niro, becomes fascinatingly appalling for a female "American stick-insect," as Bridget would say. (Though, as Zellweger herself wisely observed in Vogue: "I didn't get fat...I changed my body.") In a key, semi-nude clinch scene, the camera even roams her thighs and hips from the side--the type of pan usually reserved for said bugs.
So it is that Maguire--whose character in the book is a staunch feminist--subverts a bit of mainstream fluff with a celebratory portrayal of the heroine in all her gloriously average imperfection. Which is reason enough to elevate this flawed genre pic to above-average status itself.
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