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Chaos and Cads

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 13, 2001

   


    'Bridget Jones's Diary' Renee Zellweger and Hugh Grant have a go at it in "Bridget Jones's Diary." (Miramax)
Say this for "Bridget Jones's Diary": It is certainly the only movie ever made in which the heroine asks the actual Salman Rushdie where the toilets are.

More shocking – he knows! You could say the film runs the gamut, then, from highbrow to nobrow; and you could infer in the vast distance between those two opposites the presence of a life that is chaotic, smart and very funny.

The movie, based on the famously successful novel by Helen Fielding (who wrote the screenplay with Andrew Davies and Richard Curtis), is sort of an Everysinglewoman's progress through that malady known as modern life, where her persistent enemies are men who won't commit, friends who won't stop committing, self-doubt, cellulite and the ever-icky question that bedevils them all: Control-top panties for the slimmer look, or those thong things to go the hottie route? Bridget, bless her soul, gives us a peek at both.

Bridget Jones, early thirties, gently zaftigish, self-conscious, highly intelligent, highly human and highly mixed up, works in a London publishing house where she's expected to shill for books that are idiotic and show deference to men who are even more idiotic. Meanwhile she's trying to escape the spinster trap without giving up her soul, but of course she gives up her soul anyway.

Played by the American actress Renee Zellweger, Bridget is somewhere between lovable and annoying. She's got one of those mushy faces, hair that's not quite as cute as everybody thinks, and squinty eyes. The choice of Texas-born Zellweger to play this quintessentially English heroine upset many people, most of them British -- but as we all know, ever since the English gave up their empire, they don't count. If they want to be listened to, they should take back Hong Kong, India and East Africa.

Zellweger assays the accent with enough aplomb to get by, and she put on enough weight to suggest a real woman, instead of that eternal screen goddess with a 15-year-old's perfect, tawny, sinewy bod. She's not afraid to show a little avoirdupois squirting out 'twixt panty elastic and blouse hem, not a bulge so much as just a squidge too much tum, flaccid as unrisen dough.

The actress's problem is that she never quite seems smart enough for Bridget, an eternal wisecracker and self-deprecator who speaks in High Irony, smokes too much, drinks too much and lusts too much, and who is secretly what might be called a romantic egoist: She wants to be loved, but only for the her that is, not the her that someone wants her to be. Honey, here's some advice: Get a dog.

Zellweger's apparent lack of intellectual vim may not matter much; the movie is really carried by its two male leads, Hugh Grant and Colin Firth, who represent the alpha and the omega of male nastiness. Bridget's problem is she can't figure out which is the alpha and which the omega.

Grant plays her dashing boss, Daniel Cleaver, a very publishing-type guy if you know that world. This may be Grant's best performance, because he's not trying to be loved. He's a cruel, manipulative cad, hiding behind the male god's countenance that he knows all too well. I love the way he loves himself, and when he gives one of those transparently phony but effective winsome looks, he is like catnip to the gals. It helps no end that Grant's Daniel – and maybe Grant himself – is incredibly intelligent and quick-witted. I also liked the part where he got beaten up. Any movie in which somebody kicks the crap out of Hugh Grant is okay by me.

Firth is that other male horror, the inexpressive, pedantic nerd who can never be wrong and never say a nice thing to anybody. Both the character's name – Mark Darcy – and the character himself are boldly stolen from "Pride and Prejudice," and in fact, in an inside joke, Firth played Jane Austen's Darcy in a famous BBC version of the book where Helen Fielding fell in wuv wif him; his recycling in this version of her version of Jane Austen's version is so postmodern I forgot to laugh. A human-rights lawyer who is too polite to his mother and his domineering near-girlfriend, Darcy carries his emotions in a little metal tube taped somewhere you don't want to know about, and nobody's getting close to that.

In fact, "Bridget Jones's Diary" is at its best in observing these two male ur-types. Grant's Cleaver is the man women sleep with but never marry; Firth's Darcy is the man women marry but never sleep with. Or when they finally do, it's not with a lot of athleticism.

Grant is casually fabulous and very amusing, but all power to Firth the actor. He's the compleat Darcy, and he never wavers. There's no sentimentality, no flirtation with the audience, no final moment of pandering to the niceness gods; he's a cold geek all the way through. You can see him simmering with rage – at Bridget for being so attractive, at himself for never quite knowing what to say, at both of them for being prey to such childishness, at his libido for wanting and at his ego for fearing. Especially poignant are his long looks at her. You see in his eyes his yearning hunger and his fury at his own ineloquence and inability to find the will to move ahead, from across the unbridgeable distance of a large room filled with happy people.

Of plot a lot there's not. Bridget, in an attempt to get a real life going, shows up for work one day in a skirt so small a single postage stamp would be too much to send it through the mail but not too small to cover it. Naturally, boss-man Cleaver notices, and that romantic firestorm of the modern era, flirtation and seduction by e-mail, breaks out. Soon their cyberspace trysts give way to a more fleshly variety, but of course Bridget is so besotted by her boss's Pepso-blast smile that she catapults into the delusion that it's true love, not just hot sex. Meanwhile, the priggish, snippy lawyer keeps running into her, always a dark fury of superiority. You know where it's going: ye olde triangle tango. Which of these two rotters will win out for the right to ruin Bridget's life more completely?

Bridget's progress is as tough as any pilgrim's: She's up, she's dumped into the dumps, she's orgasmic, she's fat, she's drunk, she's self-pitying, she's hot, she's not. She even manages, in one spectacular sequence, to get a job as a TV reporter and in her first report show her butt to the nation. Talk about the bum's rush! The movie never romanticizes her, which is good; this is sort of like a grown-up version of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" where they use the F-word in every other sentence. Rhoda was never so crude, but never so funny.

The director, Sharon Maguire, is new to features but not to Fielding; she's actually a close friend of Fielding's and the inspiration for one of Bridget's three friends. So she understands the material and lets it work without getting in the way.

I have no idea what inspired Ms. Fielding other than her own life, but I'll bet she went to the movies a lot: The movie has a great deal of similarity to two other Hugh Grant hits, though this time it's Zellweger in the Grant role. Those two, of course, are "Four Weddings and a Funeral" and "Notting Hill." Same structure – the most attractive of a circle of friends yearns for freedom from it, yet always returns; the friends (here played by Shirley Henderson, Sally Phillips and James Callis), in turn, are always there for her (or him), but everyone knows that moving on is best. So it's no surprise that co-screenwriter Curtis wrote both "Weddings" and "Hill."

It's a sound structure, for it enables Zellweger to show both her frantic awkwardness and her tender decency. Meanwhile the boys circle about her, after what the boys are always after. Bridget, it turns out, lives not a quiet life but quite a life.

"Bridget Jones's Diary" (118 minutes) is rated R for language and sexual content.

 

Copyright 2001 The Washington Post Company


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