My thought on today

Review: “Bridget Jones’s Diary” (2001)

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the heroines in 95 percent (a frugal estimate) of romantic comedies are not normal. They are, alternately: a) gorgeous stick insects who, for reasons known only to the writers, can’t find a man or b) gorgeous stick insects “uglied up” with glasses and frumpish clothes and — if the stylist’s really feeling saucy — dyed, frizzy hair. Is there no medium? There is with Bridget Jones (Renee Zellwegger). She’s pretty and funny, but she’s also awkward, self-conscious and lonely. Bridget Jones is the woman Shakespeare wrote about in “Sonnet 130.”

In real life Zellwegger is not Bridget Jones, not even close, and that’s why the Brits raised such a right stink about her playing author Helen Fielding’s beloved single gal diary keeper. She’s not plump (“tapeworm thin” is more accurate) and she’s not rumpled and – here’s the kicker — she’s not British (bugger all, she’s from Texas). None of that makes one lick of difference in Sharon Maguire’s witty adaptation, though, because Zellwegger pours herself into the part and doesn’t spill one drop. She wears the slightly larger frame well and lets her clumsy girl flag fly without shame; gone is the poise and grace she radiates on the red carpet. Even more striking is Zellwegger’s accent, which never falters. (The Brits, I’ve read, described it as “too studiedly posh.” That’s about as close to praise as an American actress could hope to get.) In the whole of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” there’s nary a scene to be found where Zellwegger doesn’t endear the character to our hearts. She brings a written character to vibrant life in ways that will impress fans of the book and win over new ones.

Had an American director laid hands to “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” it’s likely this would be an entirely different movie not unlike the one described earlier. But Maguire is UK-born, so she has an ear for that dry brand of English humor. She’s also quite good at tempering humiliation humor — Bridget’s book launch speech is mortifying — and pratfalls with shrewd insights into the issues 30something single women face. “Bridget Jones’s Diary” opens straight away with a peer into Bridget’s major problems: She’s still single at 32 and has a mother, Pam (Gemma Jones, brightly outrageous), who views being single as a difficult but treatable medical condition. Mum stages a set up with haughty barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth, wink wink), who commits the offense of actually wearing the reindeer sweaters his mother buys him. The man Bridget really lusts after is her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant because he’s, well, Hugh Grant), whose picture can be seen in the OED underneath “incorrigible.” Her “urban family” — Tom (James Callis), Shazza (Sally Phillips) and Jude (Shirley Henderson) — offers no helpful advice. Getting entangled with both men leads to a host of comical snafus and one ludicrously entertaining brawl set to Ginger Spice’s cover of “It’s Raining Men” (hallelujah).

Patterned after Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” Maguire’s film follows a well-trod path to get to the expectedly pleasing resolution. The formula might seem stale if not for the formidable charms of the three main characters. Firth offers more than “Mr. Darcy: Redux,” dishing out insults and compliments in that perfectly clipped manner of his. He is a national treasure. Hugh Grant, who excels most at being himself, is a swell foil for Firth’s halting suitor; where Firth is nervous and inept, Grant is smooth and charming, always ready with a quip to distract from his loutish behavior. As both men have chemistry with Zellwegger, it’s not grating to watch her waffle between the two … even though Austen chose the winner almost 200 years ago. There’s some sentimentality, perhaps more than in Fielding’s book, but it’s offset by frank sex talk, Bridget’s droll observations — her mum is “a strange creature from the time when pickles on toothpicks were still the height of sophistication”; she dreads dinner parties full of “smug married couples” – and Zellwegger’s witty, endearing performance. Because of her Bridget’s expectations aren’t wafting with the clouds. They are right down on Earth, just as she is, much as Shakespeare would have liked: “My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground….”

Grade: B+

My thought on today

Perfect for every part (part deux)

DISCLAIMER: Pay no attention to the voices in your head that may have told you this was going to be a definitive — or even vaguely highbrow — list of actresses who seem right for every role. These voices, which may have some really good ideas sometimes, will steer you wrong here in a blog where the author ranks both “Young Frankenstein” and “Apocalypse Now” in the Greatest Movies Ever Made category.

Yeesh. Glad we got that out of the way. Now I’ll forge ahead to part two of my list, a tribute to the actresses who seem to make every character their own. Frances McDormand, of course, is our starter — and not just because Ebert said so. She’s a Coen brothers staple (she’s, uh, married to Joel), but she’s had an outstanding career outside Coenland that includes Oscar nods for drama parts (“North Country,” “Mississippi Burning”) and coming-of-age tales (“Almost Famous”). Whatever she does, she does well, and that makes her seem like a great new discovery every time I see her.

And the remaining nine actresses are:

  • Amy Adams — Amy, Amy, Amy. My love for Amy dates back to “Junebug,” when she proved a bubbly chatterbox could have depth. Then again, she gives depth to all her distinctive characters, from the serious bit parts (“Charlie Wilson’s War”) to fairy tale musicals (“Enchanted”) to smart-dumb comedies (“Talladega Nights”). She just can’t keep her darn light hidden.
  • Penélope Cruz — When Almodovar introduced Cruz in “Todo Sobre Mi Madre,” the world fell in love, and so did I. Inevitably she got thrust into numerous romantic comedies, but then she dared to go off the grid, take serious roles (i.e., “Elegy”) and, in “Blow” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona,” shred the notion that she was just some Spanish Sandra Bullock. 
  • Maggie Gyllenhaal — There’s just something about Gyllenhaal. It’s not that she oozes sexuality (she does) or that she’s possessed of a strange otherworldly kind of beauty (she is). No, I think it’s that she’s willing to get naked, physically and emotionally, to find her characters. From mainstream parts (“World Trade Center,” “Dark Knight”) to the really bold stuff (“Secretary,” “Sherrybaby”), she goes all in every time.
  • Milla Jovovich — I’ll catch hell for including a supermodel here, and I know it. So Jovovich started off as a hot action starlet and not an Oscar contender – what of it? She’s got real acting chops (she lit up the screen in “Dummy” and “You Stupid Man”) and she’s not afraid to take on parts that are fun and funny and action-oriented. Laugh if you must, but Milla’s more than a pretty face.
  • Queen Latifah — Enter controversial choice No. 2. You may be tempted to think I chose her to fill some sort of racial quota. As if. Dana Owens ended up here because she deserves to be. Here is an actress who has spent too long making terrible movies bearable (“Bringing Down the House”) and too long playing sidekicks (“Stranger Than Fiction”). Give her a lead in something like “Last Holiday,” “Chicago” or “Set It Off” and she’ll surprise you. She’s got versatility, and it’s about time Hollywood gave her more opportunities to show it.
  • Laura Linney — Linney’s the best actress who will never win an Oscar. Why? She’s too good at being plain people, and plain people rarely get gold statues. Still, that hardly means this versatile actress plays one character over and over. She does something a little different every time, sometimes stepping out of the indie box (“Breach,” “The Exorcism of Emily Rose”). She’s one to watch.
  • Kate Winslet — Kate Winslet’s the silver screen equivalent of a extreme athlete. She’s totally unafraid to take chances, consistently picking parts that involve emotional or physical nudity. As a result, she’s done erotica, fantasy (“Heavenly Creatures,” her big break), literary adaptations (the best was “Little Children”) and everything in-between. She’s just astounding, pure and simple.
  • Renee Zellwegger — This cherubic Texan has picked some doozies in her career (re: “New in Town”), but she always rises above the most derivative scripts. Bonus: She’s fearless in the face of the unknown, be it musicals or Civil War-era fare, and she attacks every part with enthusiasm. There’s a lot to be said for enthusiasm when it’s backed by real talent.

As always, bloggers, I await your suggestions…

Quick Pan: “New in Town”

“New in Town” (Renee Zellwegger, Harry Connick Jr., J.K. Simmons, Siobhan Fallon)

Jonas Elmer’s “New in Town,” the poppy soundtrack-happy rom-com equivalent of a frontal lobotomoy, has all the staying power of rapidly dissolving toilet paper, and it’s about that interesting, too. The plot is as formulaic as a paint-by-numbers kit: A ball-busting Miami careerwoman (Zellwegger) moves to the country — in this case, Minnesota — to salvage a production plant. There’s (gasp!) a culture clash involving lots of “aw, shucks” dialogue — most of it uttered by avid scrapbooker Blanche Gunderson (Fallon), who heals all wounds with her tapioca — stolen from the “Fargo” cutting room floor. And, of course, there’s the good ole’ mountain man (Connick Jr., who’s on auto-pilot) who falls hard for the city girl and teaches her the joys of country life, don’t ya know. Yawn. There’s nothing new here, from start to finish, which wouldn’t be so unforgivable if the acting was good. Oops. The former Bridget Jones tries for cute but ends up being “cute,” while Connick Jr. just looks bored (or is that his normal expression?). As for J.K. Simmons, a.k.a. plant foreman Stu Kopenhafer should know better — withering sarcasm or bewildered one-liners he can do; down-home folksy he cannot. But the whole business gave me a great idea for a bumper sticker: I’d rather be scrapbooking. Because that’s exactly how I felt watching “New in Town.” Darn tootin’.

Grade: D

Ploddingly paced “Appaloosa” disappointing

appaloosa

Ed Harris, Renee Zellwegger, Viggo Mortensen and Jeremy Irons star in slow-moving "Appaloosa."

A gruff, gun-toting lawman, a dependable, wise-cracking sidekick, a bustier-sporting temptress, a sinister villain, a bloody third-act showdown — indeed, it appears that Ed Harris’ “Appaloosa” has all the elements of a solid (if unimaginative) Western.

The problem? None of these things matter if you’re not awake to appreciate them.

Alas, such is the case with “Appaloosa,” a Western front-loaded with A-list talent (where else can you find Ed Harris, Viggo Mortensen AND Jeremy Irons in one reel?) that suffers from poor editing and even worse pacing. There’s gunfights aplenty, for sure, but they’re buried underneath piles and piles (and piles) of dialogue that’s a little too “witty” (many lines, taken straight from Robert B. Parker’s book, don’t survive the book-to-film translation) and characters that seem a little too flat to create any sort of emotional impact.

The storyline, which remains fairly faithful to Parker’s book, unfolds as many typical Westerns do: Tightlipped patrol-man-of-sorts Virgil Cole (Harris) and his more articulate partner Everett Hitch (Mortensen) travel the West working as “justice slingers,” offering to clear out any riff-raff in exchange for money. The pair stumbles upon Appaloosa, a town held firmly in the fearful grasp of Randall Bragg (Irons), a trigger-happy rancher with no livestock but a nefarious posse of outlaws. The entrance of Allison French (a horribly, dreadfully miscast Renee Zellwegger), an impeccably wardrobed organist with flexible morals and unusually hued hair, complicates Cole and Hitch’s plan to kill Bragg and restore order to Appaloosa and its beleaguered residents.

Here is a plot that’s rife with possibilities. (Consider: “Unforgiven” did much more with much less.) Yet somehow Harris — who, perhaps, should stick to acting, not directing — never manages to make these elements flow or achieve any sort of balance. For starters, the choppy editing makes for jarring, staccato, unpleasant transitions that make “Appaloosa” seem like a series of scenes strung together, not a finished movie. Then there’s the pacing. It’s slow, so slow at times that it’s almost like the film nearly flatlines … only to be paddle-shocked back to life with a gunfight or a beating or some nudity. Editing and pacing may be small parts of a movie, but here they’re bad enough to affect the quality of the movie.

Lucky for viewers, a few performances do keep “Appaloosa” from sinking too far. Harris can glower and squint and mutter with the best of them, and he delivers too-self-consciously-pithy one-liners with aplomb. (It’s fair to say, though, he’s got nothing on Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Ed Tom Bell.) But he shrinks too small, retreats too far inward; we learn too little about Cole to understand his choices, root for him, or care much about him at all. Mortensen, who steals scenes from Harris at every turn, registers rather impressively as Hitch, a would-be philosopher who happens to wield a mean eight-gauge shotgun. He quietly supports Cole, defending his choices and spurning the unwanted advances of Allison — a woman who, as poorly played by Zellwegger, is equal parts simpering wet rag and raging nymphomaniac. (Did I mention that Zellwegger is terrible? It bears repeating.) Irons clocks in at a close second to Mortensen with his wily, slick turn as Bragg, who outwits Cole but can’t teach his men to outshoot him.

Yet great performances cannot a movie save. How so? One word: editing. Anyone who needs a class in it should look to “Appaloosa” as a “don’t do this” example.

Grade: C

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