In her diary, Bridget Jones is a star. Smart, snarky, and agonizingly self-aware, she records her endlessly witty thoughts, wishes, and observations semi-regularly for a year, over which time she learns something about her desires, her neuroses, and the tyranny of social order. An articulate, middle-class, 32-year-old “singleton,” Bridget Jones is a star in the (so-called) real world, too, as the much-loved heroine of Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel, Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Bridget’s apparent appeal is that she is so much like so many other young women—and perhaps men as well—who feel beset by familial, professional, and cultural ideals advertised on tv and magazine covers. She imagines herself the cynical, self-aware anti-Cosmo girl, pitted against the cruelly impossible demands imposed by commercial imagery: size minus-one bodies, creamy complexions, perfectly pouty lips. At the same time, and almost in spite of herself, Bridget is also the consummate Cosmo girl, driven to achieve precisely those ideals that she understands as unhealthy and mass-marketed, the cultish ideals of social etiquette, banality, short-sightedness, and above all, self-improvement.
Bridget’s resistance to expectations made her a cultish figure in her own right. And so, the much-anticipated movie based on Fielding’s book arrives with all kinds of strikes against it, not least being the individual ways that readers pictured their Bridget: you may recall that the casting of Texas-born Renee Zellweger as the definitively British Bridget raised a ruckus. In fact, Zellweger does fine, even saddled with all the news items about her efforts (she gained weight for the role, spent seven months living in London in order to polish her accent, worked in a publishing house to get the feel of Bridget’s day-to-day boredom, etc.) Her performance is as bravely self-humiliating and obnoxious as a Miramax-financed movie might allow.
The problem is that she’s no longer the star of her own snipey diary, but of a very regular romantic comedy, pushed and pulled into shape by producers Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill) and co-writer Richard Curtis (Notting Hill). These fellows have clearly perfected a formula that mixes dry Brit humor with fluffy romanticism, some distance from the novel’s mostly nasty, narrow perspective, by way of Jane Austen. The fact that this crew selected veteran documentary-maker Sharon Maguire to direct suggests that perhaps, somewhere along the line, they had a sense that the movie might reference some kind of realism, however fictional. But that’s precisely the paradox the movie can’t get around—it’s a prince-charming fantasy with aspirations to real-world groundedness. And so it runs smack into the very problem it can’t avoid: by externalizing Bridget’s thoughts as “objective” scenes including other characters who have their own points of view, the film necessarily loses the novel’s tight focus on Bridget’s musings and misunderstandings.
This isn’t to say that the novel doesn’t cheat in its own way: Bridget’s diary entries contain ample portions of dialogue and description that aren’t strictly from her point of view. But such literary fudging gives her own observations a context, certainly useful for readers looking to position themselves in relation to her. The film has a built-in context, in that it does not, like a diary might, take place only in Bridget’s head. Rather, the film offers any number of characters’ responses to Bridget, even as it also offers a few subjectively surreal, Ally McBeal-ish moments.
The film opens with Bridget’s diary-like voice-over describing her distress at having to attend a Christmas season party. Invited by friends of her parents, she must confront not only her own Mum and Dad (Gemma Jones and Jim Broadbent), but also assorted folks from her childhood, including one Mark Darcy (the cleverly cast Colin Firth, who, as Bridget fans already know, was Fielding’s model for the character). Mark Darcy (always referred to as the two names together) is a well-to-do, well-intentioned human rights barrister, though dreadfully inept when it comes to social events, like saying hello. Bridget is feeling stressed, since everyone she meets is asking her about is her non-existent love life, and so she takes it out on Mark Darcy, revealing to him her most nervous, least quick-witted self. So now you know, if you didn’t five minutes before: Bridget is destined to end up with this awkward, handsome-ish chap.
As a result of this early, disastrous encounter, Bridget goes home to beat herself up some, drink herself into a hangover, and smoke too many cigarettes in one sitting: in the novel, she keeps close count of calories, alcohol units, and fags, an obsessiveness that the movie reduces to selectively lifted voice-over passages, but also tries to translate into images. And so you see mini-montages of Bridget in her flat, drinking, being depressed, wearing her penguin-patterned PJs, accompanied by Jamie O’Neal’s “All By Myself.” Oh the humanity, etc.
At this point the film sets up the requisite obstacle to Bridget’s realization that she will end up with Mark Darcy, in the form of her boss at work (she’s a publicist for a publishing house), the dashing Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, playing his usual character, this time with what appears to be deliberate smirkiness). They flirt comedically, have sex adorably, and she worries sympathetically that his aversion to commitment is indeed for real. At the same time, she’s dealing with the break-up of her parents’ marriage (her mother falls for a tv shopping channel host, who invites her to be his co-hostess), her “smug married” friends (who invite her for dinner, then harass her about her singleness), and her good chums eagerly offering up cartloads of dating advice (a trio that includes two eccentrically outfitted girls and a gay man, but of course).
Add to this her many v. public humiliations—embarrassing Salman Rushdie (playing himself) at a book party, wearing a Playboy Bunny costume to a party where no one else is in costume, and working briefly as a reporter for a local tv news program, whereupon she literally splats her derriere on the camera. This is the stuff of soaps and game shows, so obviously outrageous that viewers can rest assured that their own lives are not like that. But again, here comes the paradox that the movie can’t avoid: Bridget’s dating travails and colorful imagination—occasionally made visible in scenes such as her wedding fantasy, or Daniel’s so-droll introduction, striding into the office to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” or Bridget’s fantasy date, when he picks her up in his convertible and greets her with a manly growl that sounds like a perfectly tuned engine—all make her familiar, if only because of the Ally McBeal connection. It’s this familiarity that’s troubling. Inside the frankly sexual, frankly desirous, and frankly pissed off anti-Cosmo girl is a Cosmo girl, just waiting for her happy ending.