Hapless London-based media type Bridget Jones (Renée Zellweger) returns to the big screen after a 12-year break to battle unexpected pregnancy, twentysomething hipsters and, once more, the perils of live TV in “Bridget Jones’s Baby.” With our heroine now a successful single producer in her 40s, the pic’s three writers have thought carefully about what that might mean for her, resulting in a sincere effort that could perhaps have done with a few more really sharp gags. Still, it’s a pleasant enough change from the irrational, wildly overwritten jealousy that drove the plot of 2004’s largely woeful second film, “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.” Brand awareness and the nostalgia value of the franchise returning after a decade-plus gestation period should translate to a healthy delivery for the godparents of this “Baby,” Universal and Working Title.
Indeed, Bridget is back… and this time she’s eating for two! Actually, despite the fact that the central dilemma of the film relates to pregnancy, weight gain is not something Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson’s script for this third installment chooses to overly dwell on; they’ve sensibly intuited that both Bridget in particular and humanity in general need to move gracefully on from a calorie-counting fixation that now feels a bit ’90s. It’s up for debate whether graduating from an obsession with thigh circumference to a focus on an “accidental” pregnancy in which the mother doesn’t consult either of the potential fathers in advance really represents the zenith of progress for female representation in cinema. Still, at least the behavior of the main players feels, for the most part, recognizably human.
Opening with a call-back to the beginning of 2001’s smash “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” we find Bridget sitting in the same apartment in a now gentrified Borough Market. She’s wearing the same red flannel PJs with unhip penguin design, getting blotto on a bottle of white wine. She is, once more, singing along solo to “All By Myself.” However, unlike the Bridget of yore, who leaned into the sadness and mimed the entire song, this older version, who has just turned 43, determinedly changes the song to House of Pain’s “Jump Around” and proceeds to do just that, lip-syncing and bouncing on the bed. It’s one of those private, deeply uncool moments that cinema tends not to show us are enacted just as much by middle-aged women as by teenagers, and it’s nicely played by Zellweger. The actress is unlikely to repeat the Academy Award nomination she justly received for the comic master-class she gave in the first film, but she slips back into the role as comfortably as her old penguin pajamas — as does “Diary” director Sharon Maguire, who returns here having ducked out of the second film.
Alas, despite Zellweger’s appealingly warm, vulnerable performance, the film itself is a mixed bag. Zesty and really rather good one-liners skewering such modern cultural phenomena as “glamping” (“calling him Gladolf Hitler wouldn’t suddenly make us forget all the unpleasantness”) sit alongside limper offerings such as the stale observation that people now put pictures of their lunch on Instagram. The assumption seems to be that a mere reference to something as newfangled as the photo- and video-sharing app will pass for a gag in and of itself, which, to be fair, is an optimistic assumption shared by plenty of writers.
Indeed, the sequel is caught in something of a bind as far as the zeitgeist is concerned. The audience is interested in this quintessentially turn-of-the-century character for nostalgic reasons: Should the filmmakers attempt to service fond memories or opt to update with modern dilemmas? “Bridget Jones’s Baby” aims to do both, resulting in something of an identity crisis — encapsulated neatly in the contrasts of a jukebox soundtrack that lurches from karaoke classics of the sort featured in the first film (“We Are Family,” “Ain’t No Stopping Us Now,” “Walk on By”) to the likes of Ed Sheeran, Pharrell, and Rihanna, and then back to Burt Bacharach and Marvin Gaye. Where including then-contemporary artists like Robbie Williams was a natural part of Bridget’s cultural backdrop in 2001, this time around it feels like the music is sometimes working against this ostensibly older and wiser incarnation.
It is not a huge surprise that the highs of the original film, which so perfectly captured a moment in pop culture, are difficult to replicate. Hugh Grant’s absence as caddish Daniel Cleaver is certainly felt, though it also results in a fun sight gag where half of the Eastern European-model population of London has gathered for a Daniel-centric rendezvous. Fleeting efforts to catch up with the now smugly married gang of former singletons feel perfunctory (a pity given the caliber of comedic talent involved here), while the screen time devoted to the world of Bridget’s parents feels similarly truncated, despite the film’s two-hour run time; the edit was perhaps not an easy one.
No doubt “Edge of Reason” was a low bar to clear, and “Baby,” though an odd fish at times, certainly does that, particularly thanks to its sincere attempt to grapple with the issues Bridget might be facing at this stage in her life. The film isn’t as starkly observant as Fielding’s third Bridget book, the perkily titled “Mad About the Boy,” in which Bridget is a widow in her 50s bringing up the late Mark Darcy’s children. But “Baby” can at least claim to restore a modicum of respect for the character, which went completely AWOL in the last film.
But is “Baby” funny? The moments that will be remembered, and used to market the film, are the biggest and broadest (Bridget falling over in the mud, the image of bare derrieres on TV, etc.), but not necessarily the best. Restrained line deliveries from co-writer Thompson (as obstetrician Dr. Rawlings) and Colin Firth are among the highlights, with Thompson essaying a wry tone that calls to mind the late Alan Rickman, while Firth fractionally amps up Mark Darcy’s inherent social awkwardness, to good comic effect.
“Bridget Jones’s Baby” is not a comedy for the ages, but it’s interesting to see a rom-com starring a middle-aged woman grappling with irrelevance in the workplace. It doesn’t hurt that Bridget’s hard-nosed twentysomething new boss and nemesis is so brilliantly played by Kate O’Flynn, with the complete conviction necessary to make roles that send up hipsters anything other than a bit déjà vu at this point.
That this is a song sung in a slightly more pensive, even at times melancholy, key than the first parts of the trilogy shouldn’t hurt the film’s appeal at the box office. Distributors will face little challenge in presenting it as a knockabout romp starring a beloved female lead, of which there are still not nearly enough to sate demand.