Bridget Jones’s Diary is set in a yuppie milieu, in what is supposed to be London but could just as easily be New York or Philadelphia. The action occurs in three different spaces: Bridget’s cozy bachelor-girl apartment; the brick-exposed, primary color environment of the office in which she supposedly works; and the intermediary spaces where much of the film’s hopeless-romantic capers take place. The spaces are carefully appointed with items that signify the important points: The bobbing-head puppies on Bridget’s desk, the sassy magnets on her refrigerator, and the bevy of translucent blue and orange computers indicate that these characters are young, hip and well-off. The last point makes it clear we are not in Ken Loach’s or Mike Leigh’s London. This is Tony Blair’s London, which might as well be America.
While references to Hollywood romantic comedies are inevitable, the real model for Bridget Jones’s Diary is American hit TV programs like Ally McBeal and Friends. The only link between this movie and British cinema is a film like Four Weddings and a Funeral, which also stars Hugh Grant. Either Bridget Jones isn’t interested in realism, or contemporary Britain really is reducible to characters peppering their speech with “daft,” “sacked,” and “bollocks,” people driving on the “wrong” side of the road, and the occasional Hello! magazine planted on a coffee table.
When we meet her, Bridget, played by Renee Zellweger, has been single for 32 years. She’s a lackey in the publishing industry until she quits in humiliation (she slept with her boss, who dumped her soon afterward) and is then hired as a television news reporter. Bridget’s life is interesting, or not, because it revolves around a single question: Will she get married or not? The movie leads us to believe that Bridget will be daft in any case, so the choices are really to become a lunatic bride (the continuing misadventures of Mrs. Bridget Jones!) or to become a lunatic spinster (limited sequel possibilities).
This dilemma plays out in scenes involving the ever-irresistible Hugh Grant and the stoic-cum-loveable Colin Firth. Grant is the sexy one who does Bridget wrong and Firth is the stiff she ultimately falls for (when she realizes that he loves her just the way she is, and vice versa). The marriage tale is also played out in a half-hearted subplot involving Bridget’s parents: Mum steps out for sex with the host of a QVC-type home shopping program, but returns home in the last 15 minutes of the movie. The characters on the periphery of the marriage plot are Bridget’s three quirky girlfriends–one of them a Helena Bonham Carter look-alike, the other a Faye Dunaway wannabe, and the last a gay man prefigured by Jack from TV’s Will & Grace. The entire movie, in fact, is bound up with the dominant obsessions of American television: celebrity and marriage.
Since so much of the look and substance of contemporary movies is interchangeable with that of television programs, the new trend in movies is to try to conceal this fact, but even the disguises have become clichés. Much of Bridget Jones’s Diary consists of flat, tightly framed images–head shots or slightly wider two shots–in the style of TV sitcoms. But every 20 minutes or so there is a grandly executed crane shot in which the camera glides down and out–in one instance, from the ledge of a window to reveal the exterior of a posh country inn, and a just-married couple slow-dancing on the patio. These shots remind us that we are watching a movie.
There is also a now standard Hollywood film trope in which tiny Christmas lights and fluffy snowflakes are used to signify “movie magic,” and we see plenty of this in the opening and final scenes of Bridget Jones. And of course the movie would not be complete without many scenes punctuated with a snippet from some crowd-pleasing pop-rock-disco favorite, in an attempt to conceal the film’s clunky staging and overall slackness. In Bridget Jones, this device is used to reinforce the obvious to such an extent that it goes beyond mere cliché and enters into the realm of abstraction. In one exemplary scene, Bridget tells off Hugh Grant in front of her co-workers, all to the rousing sounds of Aretha Franklin’s “Respect.” In another, Grant and Firth engage in an all-out, knockdown brawl to the beat of The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men.” During these moments, one imagines the cast of Ally McBeal strolling into the frame and mouthing the words, like a smartly dressed Greek chorus.
What is supposed to make Zellweger’s performance distinctive is that she gained 20 pounds for the role. This follows the school of thought whereby performances are wrought through painstaking assembly of “realistic” traits, although usually they amount to affectations, mannerisms and tics (think Robert De Niro, with his frequent weight gainage, and Meryl Streep, with her fake accents). In fact, Zellweger attempts a British accent, and neither she nor the moviemakers seem to care that it’s terrible. The usual procedure in these cases is for the actor to take great pains to perfect the accent. Here, Zellweger sounds like your best friend impersonating the Duchess of York. Her failure in this respect is significant only because it makes clear that the British milieu is a sham. Zellweger’s trademark squint is in attendance in this performance as well. One might say that she owns the squint in contemporary movies: Nobody does it better, except perhaps Hugh Grant, so it was clever of the filmmakers to thrust together the two foremost squinters in the movies.
Before Bridget Jones, Zellweger was already known for being overripe on screen. The moviemakers obviously wanted to push this feature of the actress even further to remark on her resemblance to Doris Day. But where the latter had a brisk, no-nonsense comedic charm, Zellweger is leaden, perpetually whiny, confused. Bridget reads books like How to Give Men What They Want and then How To Give Yourself What You Want. This is the very literal level at which her character is seen to come into her own.
Another function of Zellweger’s Rubenesque fleshiness is to signify the character’s Britishness. Ally McBeal lounges around her apartment eating ice cream out of the carton, just like Bridget Jones, yet she remains a wisp. If you want to show that a woman is single, apparently, you show her alone in her pajamas eating cereal or the like out of the box. If she’s American, she’s skinny despite the snacking. So the “British” Zellweger has a double chin and grows asthmatic after the slightest exertion, but it’s undeniable we are meant to be charmed by her buxomness. The moviemakers demonstrate the courageousness of their liberated vision with closeup after closeup of Bridget’s bulging breasts and ample ass, but in a Victoria’s Secret sort of way (a British sort of way)–they don’t want to be vulgar after all. This is the same rhetoric used to establish the desirability of, say, Elizabeth Berkley or Denise Richards.
Bridget does all sorts of daft things, which are somehow meant to establish that she is loveable. It’s hard to say whether Bridget is neurotic or just dim. But assuming the former, why does everyone in the movie act as though her neuroses are charming? Her “hilarious” pratfalls are met only with empty grins and absent-minded reproaches. If Bridget is giving signs of real inner distress, silent pleas for help, no one gets it. In this respect only, we are inclined to feel sympathy for her, but the movie never slows down long enough for it to sink in.
In the film’s best scene, Bridget is sitting in a bathtub, against a backdrop of aquamarine tiles. This is the only moment where her body is not voluptuous, but fragile. There are folds under her arms, so that her body is allowed to have a material presence. This is followed by a shot of Bridget lounging on a couch, channel-surfing. We cut to a shot of the television, and see that she is watching a scene from Fatal Attraction, in which Glenn Close is trying to reason with Michael Douglas. This cuts abruptly to a full-screen image of Close rising out of a tub, arms outstretched. At this moment, Close, in her amazing camp performance as woman betrayed, takes on the role of a mythological avenger; she is pure id.
Bridget Jones, refusing the image, changes the channel. She begins instead to watch a nature program that features a lion mounting a lioness. The beauty of this handful of shots is that it acknowledges everything the movie is about, yet denies: that the purpose of marriage is to civilize sex, that the only rational response to Hugh Grant or Michael Douglas is murderous rage, and that the most potent cultural force in the world today is American television.