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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+