Ms. Write

In 'Bridget Jones's Diary,' Renee Zellweger captures the spirit and spunk of a woman in search of a man, and herself.

April 13, 2001|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

The film "Bridget Jones's Diary" is Renee Zellweger's triumph.

She gives her all to the role of a lovelorn publicist at a London publishing house. Zellweger has a ticklish furriness reminiscent of Jean Arthur in her screwball comic prime. She rejuvenates even the most trifling and formulaic moments. Her acquisition of a British accent and about 20 additional pounds are the least of her accomplishments.

Zellweger's Bridget can't be measured in weight gained, drinks imbibed, cigarettes smoked or calories eaten - to name the statistics that start each entry in Helen Fielding's fictional best seller of the same name. She's a comically conflicted heroine with a never-say-die spirit and a reverse killer instinct: with the best intentions, she shoots herself down.

Her quest to find Mr. Right transcends pre- or post-feminist agendas and male chauvinist propaganda. As a 32-year-old woman desperate to find the right man, Zellweger brings out the slapstick complexity of deceptively natural transactions such as dating, mating and holding down a job.

With bedroom-eyed Hugh Grant as her randy boss Daniel Cleaver, and Colin Firth in a polished deadpan as that forbidding human rights lawyer Mark Darcy, the romantic triangle glitters and spins like a top. Call it retro, call it predictable, but Zellweger gives the picture its core, and Grant and Firth supply masculine glamour.

As everyone knows by now - whether book or magazine readers, or those who watch movie-star interviews on television - the story is a contemporary riff on Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice." Grant's Cleaver is the vile seducer Wickham, and Firth's Darcy is Austen's attractive stuffed shirt, also named Darcy. Indeed, in the book, when Bridget leaves publishing and works for a TV infotainment show, she suggests an interview with the stars of the 1995 BBC "Pride and Prejudice," Jennifer Ehle and, yes, Colin Firth. (She also makes a bad joke about the real-life Hugh Grant's hooker incident.)

It's a case of creative incest resulting in a sturdy offspring. Andrew Davies, who wrote that BBC "Pride and Prejudice," co-wrote this script with Fielding and Richard Curtis, a friend of Fielding who is best known for writing "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill." Sharon Maguire, the British documentary-maker Fielding used as the model for Bridget's mad-dog feminist friend Sharon (or "Shazzer"), directed.

Some wit has been smudged along the way. At its best, Fielding's book comes as much out of British TV comedy as it does out of Austen. British video farce has mastered the aesthetic of the dither. Whether practiced by John Cleese and Prunella Scales in "Fawlty Towers" (also referenced in the book) or Jennifer Saunders and Joanna Lumley in "Absolutely Fabulous," the properly executed dither brings derailed or misapplied intelligence to the most mundane or frivolous tasks. With an edge of irony or satire, it sharpens the dumb beauty of pratfalls.

According to the aesthetic of the dither, you can take "Bridget Jones's Diary" on face value, as the tale of a female raised in a you-can-have-it-all culture who panics when she realizes that mostly, she wants a man. Or you can take it as a humorous pathological report on a gal who has lost any sense of proportion - who uses immense powers of observation, her own miniature think tank of cafe philosophers, and an array of Mata Hari tactics simply to get a decent guy.

The movie actually downplays the sitcom aspects and heightens the Austen-esque elements. The endless recounts of dietary intakes and dating post-mortems drop by the wayside as Bridget faces the fork in the road between the devilishly charming Cleaver and the disarmingly forthright Darcy.

On the one hand, I wasn't sorry to see some of Fielding's book go: 272 pages make for a lot of dithering. On the other, the filmmakers feel the need to bring in big scenes that contradict Bridget's faltering character or to underline too heavy-handedly the contrast between Cleaver and Darcy. Instead of romantic complications, we get romantic inevitabilities. (Davies' adaptation of "Pride and Prejudice" also went the way of broad comedy and heartthrob melodrama; Fay Weldon's 1979 BBC adaptation was subtler and drier.)

Luckily, the way Zellweger plays Bridget, she's a walking dither, always humming with electric longings that go beyond the cliched biological clock. She's a woman on the verge of a nervous breakthrough - she wants to enter some realm where she can be herself.

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