Film

Bridget Jones Presses On Into Adulthood — And Her Best Film Yet

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Bridget Jones mines the riches of embarrassment. Her gaffes, blunders, stumbles, and pratfalls provide the laughs in the atypical rom-coms built around her, films that rely heavily on the comedy of idiosyncrasy. Bridget is no outsider: She’s a straight, white, middle-class, university-educated woman with a media job and a gaggle of friends. She’s also an odd duck who never manages to fly in formation. But clumsiness turns out to be her saving grace. Her willingness to leap headlong into intimidating situations and brave the mortifying consequences defines the character as much as her pursuit of romance or desire for poise and confidence.

At the start of Bridget Jones’s Baby, our intrepid heroine (Renée Zellweger) seems back at square one: alone on an important night, consoling herself by drinking wine and singing along to “All by Myself.” (Could those be the same pajama bottoms she wore in Bridget Jones’s Diary?) Zellweger’s voiceover strikes the familiar self-excoriating tone as Bridget reminds herself of the gap between aspirations and outcome. But as much as this latest installment draws on affection for the snappy first film, it’s the differences that make Bridget Jones’s Baby the warmest and most satisfying of the series.

Helen Fielding introduced Bridget Jones in 1995 in comic newspaper columns written as diary entries, and then returned to The Independent ten years, several novels, and two film adaptations later for an update detailing the character’s unexpected pregnancy. The twist? Bridget doesn’t know whether the father is Daniel Cleaver or Mark Darcy, her naughty and nice exes, portrayed by Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in the first two films. Cleaver played a large part in Fielding’s scenario, but when Grant declined to reprise the role, it necessitated a rethink. Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey) now occupies that corner of the love triangle: He’s a charming, cocksure tech mogul who knows how to pitch woo.

Even without that crucial switch, this third entry might have suffered from the sequelitis of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: more of the same, only bigger and wackier. The screenplay by Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Emma Thompson allows Bridget to evolve without losing her reckless optimism.

Instead of wallowing in the self-pity that opening scene suggests, she seizes the moment as an opportunity for rebranding: No more tragic spinster, Bridget’s now a mature sexpot. The last time she made a bold declaration, the New Year’s resolution to straighten up and find a decent man in Bridget Jones’s Diary, she connected with Cleaver and Darcy. This time she meets the dashing Jack, while the brooding Darcy reasserts himself.

Director Sharon Maguire expertly handles the humor (intricate misunderstandings, exquisite slapstick), but her greatest strength is establishing a balance: Bridget Jones’s Baby is a romantic comedy that’s truly both. There’s no filler in its 122 minutes, which allows the characters breathing room to consider their choices.

As for Bridget: She’s shed the bad habits that once defined her, become a news producer, and faced romantic disillusionment. Zellweger has also added a new element, a quality of airiness fused with solidity that suggests Jean Arthur. Critics and entertainment journalists who have focused their coverage on Zellweger’s appearance have overlooked her development into a strong character actress. Her wise, light-hearted performance anchors this happy reunion, a surprising and refreshing gift from a creative well that seemed to have run dry.

Bridget Jones’s Baby

Directed by Sharon Maguire

Universal Pictures

Opens September 16