As the Bible of thirtysomething single women everywhere, “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is one of the most eagerly anticipated book-to-screen adaptations in recent memory. Informed by author Helen Fielding’s droll observations of a year in the life of her weight-obsessed, love-starved heroine, the novel hit a bull’s-eye with women on both sides of the Atlantic. As a film, however, item misses its mark, failing to capitalize on the staccato rhythms and sardonic wit of Bridget’s inner life. That said, pic’s pre-sell value is solid enough to suggest initially healthy B.O. that could continue to generate decent returns, even as it will inevitably disappoint some of the book’s devotees.
Introduced in a series of columns in the U.K.’s Independent, Fielding’s lovably imperfect Bridget, with her incessant calorie counting, cigarette smoking and wine-swilling, inflected the British vernacular with a personal lexicon that divided her community into “Singletons” and “Smug-marrieds.” Little surprise, then, that the unlikely casting of American thesp Renee Zellweger over British actresses caused a row not seen since Tom Cruise donned fangs to play the vampire Lestat.
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The good news is that Zellweger delivers as Bridget, and her fellow actors, including Hugh Grant and Colin Firth as the men she must choose between, are exceptionally well cast.
The bad news is that despite being edited down to a bare-bones 90-odd minutes, forcing the elimination of key characters and scenes and the underdevelopment of others, pic manages to feel, paradoxically, as dramatically flabby as the 10 pounds Bridget cannot seem to shed.
Things start off promisingly, with Bridget alone in her flat comically crooning along with the radio. Awash in red flannel pajamas and wine-induced haze, cheerfully oblivious and singing “All by Myself,” Zellweger breathes full-bodied life into Bridget. Opening title sequence is the movie’s best bit.
Soon she’s off to a holiday turkey-curry buffet where, for the umpteenth time, family friends barrage her with questions about her love life. Though her irrepressible mum (Gemma Jones) is scheming to fix her up with a childhood friend, party guest and top barrister Mark Darcy (Firth), Bridget, who suffers from foot-in-mouth disease, botches the encounter.
Needless to say, it is not a love connection. It’s not that Mark Darcy is so awful; it’s just that he’s a sartorially challenged snob who loftily dismisses Bridget’s attempt to make conversation. She much prefers mooning over Daniel Cleaver (Grant), her cad of a boss who has finally begun to take notice of her Ally McBeal-length skirts.
After a blissful and sex-filled courtship with Daniel, Bridget makes an unfortunate discovery that ends their romance. Not to worry, suggest her Singleton best friends Shazza (Sally Phillips), Jude (Shirley Henderson) and Tom (James Callis): There’s life beyond Daniel.
Surprisingly, there’s been interest from Mark Darcy, who’s apologized for his earlier behavior. In a thoroughly overstaged sequence that transpires at Bridget’s 32nd birthday party, there’s a showdown between Mark and Daniel leaving Bridget in a “Pride and Prejudice”-type dilemma of choosing between two men.
Above sequence, which is not in the book, has the effect of visually underscoring the conflict and further delineating Mark’s and Daniel’s own bitter history, but it reduces her friends to a simpering chorus. Other sequences memorable from the book are re-created with mixed success, including Bridget’s arrival at a “Tarts and Vicars” party in full Playboy bunny regalia, mortified to discover the party theme had been changed, and an infamous scene that finds Bridget trying to scurry up a fire pole.
Zellweger is a tireless sport about all of this. And despite the initial furor over her casting, her best roles (in “Jerry Maguire” and “Nurse Betty”) have indicated a sweetness, vulnerability and comic timing that make her perfect for Bridget. Gaining some 20 pounds, the actress has transformed herself into a lumpy, fleshy everywoman.
Sadly, Stuart Dryburgh’s lensing and Rachael Fleming’s costumes go a bit too far in making her look unattractive. As to her accent, Brits may complain about its authenticity, but Americans will be thoroughly convinced.
Grant and Firth are impeccable. Firth, whose performance as Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s “Pride and Prejudice” was the model for Fielding’s Mark Darcy, brings unexpected depth to his role, while Grant, for once, thankfully gets to play against type. And perhaps it’s no small coincidence that both actors are mentioned in the book.
Documentary director Sharon Maguire, the real-life model for Fielding’s Shazza, has shown an uncertain hand in her first feature. Script by Fielding, Richard Curtis (“Notting Hill” scribe) and BBC “Pride and Prejudice” writer Andrew Davies could have benefited from using elements of the book’s diary structure, a framework it first adopts then jettisons inexplicably.
Pic also seems to suffer in some scenes from a lack of color correction.