In Bridget Jones’s Diary, Renée Zellweger’s breasts are as plump and white as pillows in a baby’s crib. The breasts, although unmistakably real (silicone does not jiggle in so eye-catching a fashion), are only an aberration. As anyone who has leafed through an entertainment or fashion magazine in the past two months already knows, they are the result of the 15-odd pounds Zellweger gained for her portrayal of the irresistible heroine of Helen Fielding’s novels Bridget Jones’s Diary and the even more hilarious The Edge of Reason.
The endless detailing of how Zellweger bulked up on pizza, chocolate, and chardonnay (Bridget’s favorite treats) and then slimmed down (through daily three-hour workouts and limiting her sugar intake to one Reese’s peanut butter cup a month) has the effect of focusing our attention far too much on the bulimic aspects of the character. But Bridget’s overeating, like her smoking and her lottery ticket habit, is only a symptom of the angst that is the actual subject of the novel and of the film that serves it indifferently at best. In addition, the speed with which the actress shed her Bridget-like poundage, emerging months before the movie’s release as an impeccably toned size two, seems like an implicit put-down of the character, who, despite constant calorie counting and diet resolutions, achieves her ideal movie-star proportions only after weeks in a Thai prison (an episode that occurs late in The Edge of Reason and, unfortunately, falls outside the scope of the film).
A gently barbed social satire, Bridget Jones’s Diary originated as a series of columns in the liberal London newspaper The Independent. The proximity to stories about famine in Africa and massacres in the Balkans must have made Bridget’s obsessions seem not only outrageously trivial but also a kind of “hysterical displacement activity” (Bridget’s own term) designed to keep at bay feelings of guilt over one’s social apathy.
Once Bridget Jones’s Diary was published in book form in the U.S., the comparison to Ally McBeal was inevitable. But unlike Ally, who oscillates between self-loathing and self-adoration, Bridget occupies a more sympathetic middle ground, where self-doubt both engenders and undermines the desire for self–improvement. Bridget lives in a state of near paralytic embarrassment and anxiety, and Zellweger’s stammering, stumbling performance finds the humor in her predicament without betraying the conflicted emotions at its core.
An update of Pride and Prejudice for an era when marriage is no longer a stabilizing institution but still exerts a hold over the imagination of “singletons,” Bridget Jones’s Diary weaves its episodic narrative around a romantic triangle. Bridget, a middle-class, country-raised thirtysomething, is so besotted by Mr. Wrong—her Oxbridge-educated boss, Daniel Cleaver (played by Hugh Grant)—that she nearly misses Mr. Right, the equally aristocratic lawyer Mark Darcy (played by Colin Firth). In one of several intertextual twists, Firth’s performance as Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Austen’s novel is one of Bridget’s favorites.
Although the film preserves bits of Bridget’s quirky, free-associative inner monologue, the three-act structure is too predictable, and at 90 minutes, feels both draggy and hacked to the bone. Playing Bridget’s temporarily estranged parents, the brilliant comic actors Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones are hustled on- and off-screen so rapidly they barely have time to make an impression. Fielding collaborated on the screenplay with veteran writers Richard Curtis (who wrote the glibly sentimental box-office hits Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill) and Andrew Davies (whose TV credits include the BBC production of Pride and Prejudice in which Firth starred).
Sharon Maguire, a friend of Fielding’s, was the model for Bridget’s tough-talking feminist pal, Shazza, but as a director, she makes bland choices. The idiom is unfailingly British (Bridget counts her weight in stones and attends a “vicars and tarts” party, where she circulates among her parents’ friends in a Playboy bunny costume), but the settings are so generic that the film could have been shot in Toronto. There’s no sense of the West London gentrification that provided the novel with its meatiest material for satire.
Still, the three leads acquit themselves with comic élan. With his languorous posture, mocking voice, and carelessly seductive glances, Grant is such a devastating cad he nearly steals the picture from Zellweger. Almost never off the screen, Zellweger has the daunting task of playing a character who personifies the film’s point of view without being exempt from its satire. One of the novel’s flaws is that Fielding vacillates about how much of a dimwit Bridget is, and Zellweger can’t resolve the inconsistency between the occasional acuity of the character’s perceptions and how staggeringly uninformed she is (although she works in a classy publishing house, she doesn’t know that lit-crit giant F.R. Leavis has been dead for 25 years). The film, like the novel, shies away from the uncomfortable truth that both Mr. Wrong and Mr. Right are attracted to Bridget not only for her cushiony body, but because her empty-headedness makes her seem vulnerable and unthreatening. Bridget gets her man, but you should think twice about whether that constitutes a happy ending.
An actor best known for his work with David Mamet, Joe Mantegna chose for his directorial debut Mamet’s first play. The autobiographical Lakeboat is based on the playwright’s experience of spending a summer shipping out on a Great Lakes freighter. Mamet did the screen adaptation, and most of the cast are part of his informal acting company. Mantegna put himself in familiar waters. If there was little chance of drowning here, it was also unlikely that the trip would be much of an adventure. And in fact, the script is so inherently stagy that setting the film on a real boat doesn’t pay off.
Dale, an English lit major (played by Tony Mamet, the screenwriter’s younger brother), gets a job as a cook on the Seaway Queen. The skipper (Charles Durning) is an exhausted World War II veteran, and most of the crew seem to have resigned themselves to the isolation and boredom of their daily lives. The exception is Joe (Robert Forster), who sees in Dale the possibility of the creative life that always eluded him. Joe takes Dale under his wing and confides to the younger man how he once tried to commit suicide and how, as a boy, he fantasized about becoming a ballet star. Drawing on the romanticism that made him so affecting in Jackie Brown, Forster not only makes this unlikely story emotionally believable, he moves you to tears. Lakeboat isn’t much of a film, but for Forster fans, it’s indispensable.