When I was in London a few years ago, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’s Diary was all the rage. All of my single friends loved this book about a slightly overweight “singleton” who smoked like a chimney, drank like a fish and had the usual share of man problems. Posters for the book were plastered everywhere, but I never succumbed and actually bought a copy, even when it became an international bestseller and showed up on local book racks. It was hailed as the book that mirrored, with unnerving accuracy, the aspirations, confusions and desires of single women across the world. Could it be I ignored it because I was one of those “smug-marrieds” Fielding complains about?
Thanks to the film, which is hilarious regardless of sex or marital status, I have become sensitized. I vow never again to ask anyone, “How’s your love life?” Plus, I think I’ll run out and buy the book, which began its life as a column written by Fielding in London’s independent newspaper. She was a self-described calorie-counting, e-mail-happy, vodka-drinking journalist who owned about every self-help book imaginable. In other words, the genuine article. I have a journalist friend in San Francisco just like her.
The film, which was co-written by Fielding and had very spirited direction from Sharon Maguire, is great escapist entertainment. There’s nothing particularly profound, it’s just an exuberantly cheery romp that keeps you laughing for all 90-some-odd minutes. Maguire, a documentary filmmaker, makes her first foray into feature films with Bridget Jones’s Diary. This is terrain she knows well. A friend of Fielding’s, she was the inspiration for Bridget’s best friend, Shazzer, a feminist with a successful career who still wonders why she’s alone. Maguire succeeds brilliantly in translating the book’s universal comic truth onto the screen. She turns out to be the perfect choice to direct this clever comedy.
So who plays the title role in the film but a Texan? Go figure. That perky Plain-Jane Renée Zellweger pulls it off, but you never quite forget she was Nurse Betty. Zellweger mastered a British accent, put on 20 pounds so that she’s fleshy but not fat (i.e. she looks like most normal women), and let her hair go uncombed and unhighlighted for the role. But she’s still an odd casting choice. I suppose, though, that if Vivian Leigh could play the penultimate Southern belle in Gone With the Wind, why can’t a Texan play Bridget Jones? Gwyneth Paltrow played a Brit in Sliding Doors, after all. Still, I would have preferred the real thing. It would have been less distracting, as winning as Zellweger is.
The irrepressible Bridget Jones is a 32-year-old, rather frumpish singleton who doesn’t want to die fat and alone with a bottle of wine as her only companion. She makes a vow on New Year’s Day that she’ll take total control of her life and starts keeping a diary. She writes about everything any single woman has lived—men, sex, exercise, diets, her boss, her smug-married friends, her scatter-brained single friends, friends who keep asking the dreaded “How’s your love life,” parties thrown by her mum’s friends and her mum’s valiant attempts to set her up with available men. Bridget’s own narrative of her life, which the film keeps in voice over, is extremely funny, outrageous and best of all very real.
Her mother (Gemma Jones), who thinks gherkins on toothpicks are the height of sophistication, tries to line her up with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), a divorced barrister, at the annual Turkey Curry Buffet. Bridget thinks he’s a dull, arrogant prig. He thinks she’s a verbally incontinent goofball who dresses like her mother. What was her mother thinking? He’s a terrible choice.
The man she wants is the worst choice, of course. Her boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), the office scoundrel she fantasizes about from her desk. He’s a sexist lech who sends her e-mails about her short skirt (“You appear to have forgotten your skirt”), feels her up in the elevator and says things like, “I bet you did, you dirty bitch,” all of which only make him more endearing to her. When he asks her out on a proper date, she goes into high gear with preparations, shaving her legs, giving herself a bikini wax and fretting over whether to wear the stomach holding-in panties or the sexy black thong. She does, in other words, what all women do. That’s the great appeal of Bridget Jones. There’s a little of her in all of us.
She falls for the wrong man, though he seems so right. When Daniel takes her off on a mini-break holiday weekend, she’s sure it’s more than shagging. It must be true love. We’ve all been there. We know better. When things go sour, the serious Mark Darcy shows up, saying the words every woman wants to hear: “I like you just the way you are.”
So, now, the girl who couldn’t find a date is caught between two very different men. One she thought she hated and dismissed as a “fuckwit,” the other she thought she loved but who has a bad character. It’s a dilemma straight out of Jane Austen. Colin Firth is perfect as the disgruntled, serious-minded attorney, while Hugh Grant seems right at home in the role of the slimy-though-charming boss who is not to be trusted. Grant even drops his trademark stuttering for this role. It’s pure confidence he exudes here. Zellweger has her own charm and the right dose of vulnerability mixed with that no bullshit attitude, but she never made me believe she’s a full-fledged Brit. Still, if you’re looking for a good time, check her and Bridget Jones out.
Bridget Jones’s Dairy (R) HHH Directed by Sharon Maguire. Starring Renée Zellweger, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth.