The casting of Texas-born Rene Zellweger as the quintessential lovelorn British single woman Bridget Jones in the new movie adaption of the veddy populah British novel, was one of the most criticized casting decisions of recent years. In Britian, particularly among female fans of Helen Fielding's books and columns, this move was about as controversial as the casting of Brit actress Vivian Leigh as the ulimate Southern Belle was in "Gone With the Wind" over 60 years ago.
Judging from recent box office returns, while not in GWTW territory, it may turn out to be one of the most well rewarded risky moves in quite some time. Fans of Fielding-- and even many who don't consider reading a leisure activity-- have taken this post-feminist heroine into their hearts, mainly on the strength of Zellweger's delightful performance.
She stars as the title character, a bumbling, but well-meaning single Londoner who drinks, smokes, and eats too much. Bridget also has a knack for making EVERY awkward social situation worse.
After her mother unsuccessfully tries to set her up with a stuffy family friend, Mark Darcy, (Colin Firth), at a Christmas party, Bridget hears Darcy listing all of her faults as the reasons why the notion of him being interested in her was laughable.
Stung, Bridget decides to go on a self improvement binge-- for a change-- before she dies a lonely spinster and her body is eaten by wild dogs. She also begins a diary to record her progress-- or lack thereof. These funny, and often ascerbic, observations are related to us by voiceover.
Unfortunately, her efforts to improve her image attract the attention of her boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) the office cad at the publishing firm where she works. The insecure Bridget, unused to this kind of attention, immediately begins an affair with him.
But it turns out that Darcy thinks of Bridget's transparency and social bumbling as part of what makes her special; while Cleaver sees them as weaknesses he can exploit.
"Bridget Jones' Diary" is a very funny and likeable comedy of manners. Zellweger shines in the role, which is an old fashioned star vehicle like "Erin Brokovich," only in reverse. While that movie emphasized the glamorous side of its star to best advantage, Zellweger definitely dresses down for this one. Not only is her character bumbling and clumsy, the actress gained 20 pounds for the role. She brings it off beautifully, however, with a nearly Meryl Streep ability to assume a different nationality.
Hugh Grant is really terrific as the cad. I MUCH prefer him in a less sympathetic role, but maybe that's a personal prejudice.
Colin Firth is also good as the more refined, but equally poor at expressing his feelings, Darcy. (Helen Fielding actually named Darcy for the Jane Austin character, after seeing Colin Firth play Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice." Talk about perfect movie casting.)
On the down side, in the script by "Four Weddings and a Funeral" writer James Curtis (a movie I loathed for its callow attitudes) there is a LOT of salty language, (including a few expressions I've never heard before, even after a lifetime in sports and two years living in a men's college dorm) and sex is routinely considered part of the dating relationship, even in the getting to know you stage.
The allusions to Darcy are not the only Jane Austin references in both the book and the movie; but this is definitely not Jane Austin's world in many regrettable ways.
Ultimately, however, while not as strong a moral message about commitment for women as last year's terrific "High Fidelity" was for young men, "Bridget Jones' Diary" presents marriage as the goal of dating, giving as the proof of love, and unconditional love as the basis for commitment.
Despite the movie's flaws, that's not bad.