Movie Review: Bridget Jones's Diary
Bridget Jones's Diary amuses almost as much in movie form as it did between book covers.
The film kept me smiling all the way through. And it's about time. Good romantic comedies with charming characters and witty dialogue -- especially in the hands of masters like Ernst Lubitsch, George Cukor or, more recently, Woody Allen -- have always been among the movies' chief delights. They sizzle and refresh. But recent romantic comedies have tended to fizzle on screen. The Wedding Planner, Someone Like You and What Women Want came across as overcalculated pseudo-comedies -- curdled valentines.
Bridget Jones's Diary is an exception. It's a chronicle of the romantic misadventures of a brainy young publishing-house publicist in her early 30s whose love life and family have become disasters. Based on Helen Fielding's incredibly popular book, it's chock-full of delights. Among them: the brilliant acting of stars Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth and Hugh Grant; the effervescent dialogues and crackling monologues; the empathetic and limber direction by first-timer Sharon Maguire; the clever in-jokes and ribald ripostes; and the way the whole movie seems to gleam and dance as you watch it.
Zellweger is an actor of such pixie charm yet deep humanity that she defies category. How can this milky-complexioned Texan play a role considered so quintessentially British that much of the British Isles' female populace seems to identify with it? How can they accept Texan Zellweger as Bridget? How can we?
Well, how did we all accept Britain's Vivien Leigh as that ultimate Southern belle, Scarlett O'Hara? While I found her clipped London accent and fruity diction strange for the first few scenes (wondering where her drawl disappeared to), I soon completely accepted her. Zellweger may have learned Bridget's accent from a diction coach. But the brains, warmth, earthy charm, sympathy, goodness and sturdiness are her own. And they definitely work for Bridget.
Who is Bridget? Obviously, she's a surrogate for writer Fielding. But Bridget struck a chord with so many readers because of her universal predicament: Thirtyish, likable, fairly successful in life (Fielding herself worked in TV documentaries), Bridget is deeply discontent because she is without a partner. She blames herself, obsesses about food, makes lists, breaks resolutions. She has a deep crush on her publisher boss, Daniel Cleaver (Grant), a twinkly guy who's a bit of a rake. Another man, Mark Darcy (Firth), seems unavailable -- guarded by a possessive girlfriend, Natasha (Embeth Davidtz).
There are other crises in her life. Her mom (Gemma Jones) has left her dad (Jim Broadbent) and fallen for a shopping-channel huckster with phony-looking hair. So her dad quietly suffers, watching the shopping channel. To combat all this, Bridget welcomes her friends (Sally Phillips, Shirley Henderson and James Callis), who always try to cheer her up. Or, she opens her diary and writes about life, sex, food, money, family and almost everything else.
What helps make the movie work so well is the way Bridget's voice dominates it. Diary echoes with her slants, laughter and whines. As with Woody Allen, that recognizable voice draws us in, and we feel strongly for our imperfect narrator.
As in many romantic comedies, the heroine is torn between two men: the dark, solid and mysterious Darcy; and Cleaver, Bridget's irresponsible Casanova boss. Firth gives Darcy a wounded grace. And Grant gives Cleaver all his finesse. Usually, Grant plays the good lover; here, he's just as effective playing the bad. And the Zellweger-Firth-Grant triangle works as irresistibly as Hepburn-Grant-Stewart in The Philadelphia Story.
The rest of the cast is fine, too, especially Broadbent as the hurt dad. (There's also a wonderful cameo at a publishing party from novelist Salman Rushdie.) Director Maguire may be a first-time dramatic feature-maker. But she is deeply versed in film: She has directed many documentaries for British television on subjects like Picasso, Margaret Thatcher and H.G. Wells. Though her touch is never intrusive, we can always feel her hand and voice: urbane, sophisticated, strongly involved with her characters.
The links between the moviemakers and the book are fascinating. Writer and executive producer Fielding is, of course, the inspiration for much of Bridget. But director Maguire is the model for Bridget's best friend, Shazza (Phillips). Co-writer Richard Curtis, who has written several hits for Grant (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) in which Grant plays a version of Curtis himself, here has written a part nearer Grant's own personality -- at least according to Grant. Firth is playing a character named Darcy, the story's quiet hero, much like the Darcy in Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. And that's a role that Firth also has played on screen -- just as Grant has acted in Ang Lee's film of Austen's Sense and Sensibility.
Austen, that supreme British romantic-comedy novelist, is the right measuring rod here. Fielding obviously is thinking of her, as are the other writers, director Maguire and the actors. And, if we are, too, neither the film nor Zellweger, who plays Bridget with such wit and courage, will disappoint us.