Comedy and Truth
Bridget Jones’ Diary delivers just what it promises. That is, a fleeting entertainment, narrowly focused through one girl’s perspective of herself. Dedicated to her diary, Bridget is an articulate, hardworking, middle-class, 32-year-old “singleton,” the much-loved heroine of Helen Fielding’s 1996 novel, Sharon Maguire’s 2002 film, and most recently, Beeban Kidron’s sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason. The diary serves as a neat little metaphor for her emerging self-consciousness: in the process of writing, she learns something about her desires, her neuroses, and the tyrannies of social order.
Released in conjunction with the new movie’s arrival in theaters, Bridget Jones’s Diary: Collector’s Edition offers a raft of extras and a sweet red-diary-looking cover. These include the usual (deleted scenes, a feel-good making-of documentary) as well as some more specific to the film at hand: “A Guide To Bridget Britishisms”; reviews of the film (glowing, of course); several “Bridget Jones” columns (where it all began: “Determined, now, to free self’s thighs of cellulite”); and three featurettes—“The Young and the Mateless” (a guide to being single, as, in the BJ universe, it entails a sort of “survival”), “The Bridget Phenomenon” (in case you haven’t heard enough about this already), and “Portrait of the Makeup Artist” (namely, Graham Johnston, who’s done makeup on both the BJ films: “With lips, again, a very natural rose look”). The fluff and redundancy are quite odious, hinting at the overkill mentality that apparently led to the second, much less successful film.
By far the most engaging extra for Bridget Jones’s Diary is the commentary by director Sharon Maguire, borrowed from the first DVD version, released in 2001. Speaking of her star, Renée Zellweger, Maguire is appropriately besotted: “You can see what she brought to Bridget. She’s got this fantastic warmth and this permanent confusion on her face. There’s something a bit Lucille Ball about her quality, her physical quality, it’s very subtle comic acting. She’s able to straddle comedy and truth very, very effectively.” And indeed, as Maguire speaks, Zellweger demonstrates precisely this mixed up look.
In this film and in Helen Fielding’s originary novels, Bridget Jones’ appeal is premised on her smart and often agonizing self-awareness, her likeness to 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, lips that are perfectly pouty (and rosy, as the makeup maestro puts it). 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 Renée Zellweger as the definitively British Bridget raised a ruckus. She does fine in this first incarnation, 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, even “worked” in a publishing house to get the feel of Bridget’s day-to-day boredom) Her performance is as bravely self-humiliating and obnoxious as Maguire insists: consider her comment on the Playboy Bunny outfit she wears to a party she mistakenly thinks is a costume fete. “I and Renée feel very proud of the way she looks… I think we went for something that is a little bit more real.”
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 and co-writer Richard Curtis. 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, and whom Maguire lauds as “very game”). 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, singing along to Jamie O’Neal’s “All By Myself,” that is, “easy listening for over-30s” (Maguire points out Zellweger’s considerable effort here, in “early morning!”) to make this scene work).
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). 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, working briefly as a reporter for a local tv news program, whereupon she literally splats her derriere on the camera, and discovering one of Daniel’s other girlfriends (who comments to D, so utterly meanly, “I thought you said she was thin”). This is the stuff of soaps and reality game shows, so obvious 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—made visible in her wedding fantasy, or her view of Daniel striding into the office to the tune of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” or even Bridget’s fantasy date, when she looks like Grace Kelly and he picks her up in his convertible, greeting her with a manly growl that sounds like a perfectly tuned engine—all make her familiar, a character you’ve seen before. Inside the frankly sexual, frankly desirous, and frankly pissed off anti-Cosmo girl is a Cosmo girl, just waiting for her happily coupled ending.