Fantastically fresh and funny, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a blessed reminder of just how good — and how pointed — British comedies can be. In a world seemingly overrun with truly stupid and truly tasteless attempts at humor in such rubbishy offerings as Say It Isn’t So and Tomcats (as well as the by-the-numbers blandness of Someone Like You), it’s a double delight to come upon this sort of genuinely edgy, bright, and creative filmmaking. Bridget Jones’ Diary is a film in the spirit of My Beautiful Laundrette, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, How to Get Ahead in Advertising and A Man of No Importance. In short, it’s an honest-to-goodness piece of filmmaking that dares to be different and obviously hasn’t been test-marketed into just so much cinematic cheese whiz.
Based on the book by Helen Fielding (who also worked on the screenplay), the film traces a year in the life of Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger), a slightly overweight, heavy-drinking, heavy-smoking book publicist with a penchant for disastrous public speaking and a tendency to say exactly the wrong thing at precisely the wrong time. Complicating her already disordered life is her ditsy, matchmaking mother (Gemma Jones); her distracted and bemused father (Jim Broadbent); and assorted well-meaning, plainly dysfunctional friends. Not surprisingly, Bridget’s romantic life is an unqualified disaster and looks to stay that way when mother tries to fix her up with lawyer Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) in what appears to be a case of loath at first sight. Instead of taking up with him, she ends up in the arms and bed of her charming boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant — who seems too good to be true — and, of course, is). Generally speaking, the plot is not exciting in itself — and much as is the case with the recent Someone Like You, the ending is pretty much a foregone conclusion. (Anyone who doesn’t know with whom Bridget is going to find true love is in dire need of a remedial-movie-plot course.) The difference is that Bridget Jones’s Diary reaches its conclusion with wit, with style, with constantly clever lines (often extremely vulgar) delivered by an impossibly perfect cast, with a true sense of fun that extends to its soundtrack (why are the British the only people who can actually use a pop song soundtrack that integrates into the film?) — and best of all with wonderful characters whose eccentricities make them more human rather than less so.
The Texas-born-and-bred Zellweger is utterly convincing, beguiling and touching as Bridget. It’s a model performance that — perhaps not accidentally — comes off as a rather more sexy and savvy, yet less cynical, variant of Lynn Redgrave in Georgy Girl. Colin Firth has an amazingly complex role that calls for him to appear utterly humorless and unlikable, while being anything but that underneath, and he somehow pulls it off. The revelation for many, though, is probably going to be Hugh Grant, an actor best known for trading on being gorgeous and working his stuttering charm for all its worth. Basically, there are two ways of using Hugh Grant to advantage (at least in the dramatic sense). In a successful Hugh Grant performance, the filmmaker has usually cast him to type in a manner where his basic limitations — his slightly priggish, seeming lack of imagination — work for the film (The Lair of the White Worm, Bitter Moon, Sirens). Only once before — in the little-seen An Awfully Big Adventure — has Grant really been called on act, as he has here. Cast against type as a thorough scoundrel who gets by on his looks, charm, and wit, Grant comes through with a nuanced performance that manages to make you detest him and yet succumb to his charm at the same time — not the work of a mere personality with a pretty face. The rest of the cast is equally fine, but perhaps the name to watch is that of first-time director Sharon Maguire. This woman is a natural filmmaker who combines a fluid, vibrant, personal cinematic style with the ability to genuinely direct actors (something too many modern filmmakers seem to have overlooked). If Bridget Jones’s Diary is the hit it deserves to be, Maguire is at the start of a career that might go anywhere.