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Saga of a singleton

Bridget Jones's Diary loses its bite on screen

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As embodied by Renee Zellweger, the 32-year-old British heroine Bridget Jones is the Buster Keaton of single women: a pratfalling spaz whose hair is unacquainted with a comb, who sports tennis shoes with skirts, shows up at a garden party wearing a Playboy bunny costume and cooks dinners of blue soup and orange zest goo.

Zellweger's Bridget is based on the flinty, smart, very urbane and yet still endearingly human Englishwoman at the center of Helen Fielding's best-selling account of her misadventures on the dating scene first serialized in England's Independent newspaper. But this Bridget Jones's Diary maintains only a semblance of the breathless, saucy Fielding style, which included a running account of her weight fluctuations and her daily consumption of cigarettes and liquor.

Ms. Fielding's catalog of self-loathing and backsliding attempts at self-improvement are intermingled in this film version with a quest for Mr. Right, who presents himself, at various stages in the film, in the form of an unctuously good-looking Daniel Cleaver (played by the ubiquitous Englishman Hugh Grant), oozing privilege and self-possession, and the more unreadable, reserved Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), the man lurking right under Bridget's nose, whom the audience knows all along is supposed to wind up with her. This Bridget also comes equipped, like Barbie, with a trio of fun friends who seem conjoined at the cocktail glass and travel en masse, consoling Bridget when she's down and giving her a thumbs-up when she's on top.

It's all very merry and runs along at a jaunty clip and will assuredly delight the majority of fans of romantic comedies, whose expectations are probably low to begin with, being a higher-caliber of film than most of its ilk.

On the one hand you want to applaud the Bridget Jones movie masterminds for casting such a defiantly normal, slightly roundish (Zellweger bulked up to play the role), non-knock-out Zellweger as Bridget when "average" in Hollywood terms is the ethereally gorgeous Michelle Pfeiffer.

But some of the snarky, rude wit of the original Diary has been erased in an effort to make the story more palatable to a larger audience in the inevitable Four Weddings and a Funeral-ification of Anglo wit to American tastes. When rendered in visual terms, many of the most delicious qualities of Bridget Jones's Diary also become highly smelly, like a wedge of cheese that's overstayed its welcome.

Part of the distinctive, amusing tone of the original exploited the diary form and the way certain qualities are exaggerated for effect, filtered through the writer's prejudices and flair for dramatic, hyperbole. But film must make those qualities literal in a way that is far more flamboyant and much less fun. What registers as droll in prose comes across as buffoonishly obvious and obnoxious in film, like Bridget's clueless bourgeois mummy, a cream-filled cupcake of a woman who serves merkins with toothpicks as hors d'oeuvres and cuckolds her frumpy husband by taking up with an overly tan home shopping network spokesman.

Then there's the larding of the film with American pop songs from Shelby Lynne, Sheryl Crow and Chaka Khan -- some kind of national bylaw in adapting works to these shores. The film also features an insipid Tom Cruise moment during the film's opening where a depressed Bridget, recently described by Mr. Darcy as a "verbally incontinent spinster," croons "All By Myself" in her PJs in her attic apartment. It's the kind of cutesy-pie bunk moviemakers embrace as pure entertainment gold.

Zellweger is charming and excels at these and other bumbles, but this film version soon grows stale, feeling tweaked for an American audience with peppy pop songs and the kind of canned zaniness that makes one wonder why "cute" is so often mistaken for wit on these shores.

But the most annoying feature of the big-screen Bridget is the film's positive delight in the fluffy cuteness of the adorably groveling, cellulite-pinching, bikini-waxing depths of female masochism. Bridget's "why can't I find a husband?" lament caters to women's lowest expectations and suggests that even the "modern" "liberated" woman is a Doris Day closet-case. The trend unites neurotic babedom from Bridget to "Ally McBeal" to the steely babes of "Sex and the City," though connoisseurs of SWF poplore may very well prefer the gimlet-eyed, razor-tongued, attitude-spewing bitches of "Sex" who would eat Zellweger's Beatrix Potter flopsy singleton as a light tapas.

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