Luminous Zellweger saves girly ‘Diary’

Though it may be an outdated term, Sharon Maguire’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is a chick flick. All the men are somehow evil — except, of course, for Mr. Right. The greatest source of oppression is the bathroom scale, and Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” is on the soundtrack. Besides that, it’s about a woman’s diary, and what could be girlier than that?

As it turns out, a lot. “Bridget Jones’s Diary” distinguishes itself from the often annoying chick flick genre by making its winsome star, Renee Zellweger, forgo vanity for slapstick. As long as female fans can quell their inner feminist, which will balk at Bridget’s obsession with men and her appearance, and male fans can be content with Zellweger’s physical comedy, this adaptation of Helen Fielding’s acclaimed novel will appear funny and sweet without being too sugary.

Bridget is a British thirtysomething “singleton”–making her the victim of disastrous blind dates (arranged by her mother, no less) and dinner parties thrown by smug married couples. A Christmas gathering finds her dressed in a suit that looks like it was made from thrift store drapes, meeting Mark Darcy (a charming Colin Firth), who is clad in a reindeer sweater suitable only for kindergarten teachers. After exchanging awkward pleasantries, with Zellweger reveling in her bumbling monologue, the two go their separate ways. Bridget then overhears Darcy confide to another partygoer that she is a drunk who smells like an ashtray and dresses like her mother.

Needless to say, Bridget’s ego is destroyed, and for the rest of the film she rides a roller coaster of emotional highs and lows, dependent largely on the men in her life. After drenching several tissues with tears and wailing along with “All By Myself,” Bridget decides to take control of her life, resolving on the first page of her new diary to “obviously lose 20 pounds” and to avoid fantasizing about perverts such as her boss, Daniel Cleaver (a ribald Hugh Grant).

Predictably, she quickly sets to fantasizing about and seducing Daniel, incorporating miniskirts and sheer blouses into her office wardrobe. Also predictably, Daniel falls for it. Her first date with Daniel is hilarious. She wears beige granny underwear that Daniel is nonetheless delighted to uncover. When the happy couple run into Darcy at a party, the plot thickens, and the two men both begin to pursue Bridget. Bridget’s rather inane handling of the situation evokes many a laugh.

At about this time, feminists will undoubtedly rear their heads and rally against Bridget, whose only goal in life is securing a good boyfriend. Even when she attempts to assert her independence from the male gender, she can’t seem to escape being classified as a sex object. For example, upon having a tiff with Daniel over another woman, Bridget seems to be on the road to self-sufficiency. She quits her job and tells Daniel off as the entire office watches. Of course, Bridget’s new job involves winning television ratings by sliding down a fireman’s pole and into a camera while wearing a miniskirt (sans underwear). Furthermore, she only procures the job after informing her (male) would-be employer that the reason she left her former post was because she slept with her boss. The excited man responds that she would not be penalized for such an act at his company.

Bridget’s helplessness is somewhat justified if the film is viewed as a Jane Austen adaptation. Bridget acts much like a Jane Austen heroine, and it is no coincidence. The film loosely resembles Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” right down to using Firth, a veteran of the PBS adaptation of the novel, to play a dashing leading man named Darcy. Bridget is a drinking, smoking, foul-mouthed counterpart to Elizabeth Bennett, Austen’s headstrong heroine who must overcome her prejudice against Darcy. Given this resemblance, the female stereotypes contained in “Bridget Jones’s Diary” are forgivable if only because they are the side effects of adapting Austen to a modern setting.

In the end, Zellweger’s performance could easily win over even the staunchest feminist (or Jane Austen critic). She is completely disarming in her willingness to do anything for a laugh, including suffering through an ill-fated leg wax and limping out of the bathroom with tissue paper stuck to her thighs. She is able to pull off what eludes so many actresses — physical and self-deprecating humor. Furthermore, that her somewhat chubby character can still attract the likes of Grant and Firth breaks a key female stereotype.

The male leads are also enjoyable to watch. Grant explores new territory with his comic pervert, while Firth nails the quiet leading man and succeeds as the straight man in the film’s gags.

The overall message of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” remains the following: Women are happy when they are with men. Otherwise, they are pathetic maudlin messes. In this sense, the film is the traditional, stereotyping chick flick. Maguire, however, keeps the film moving at an energetic level, never allowing sad moments to get too weighty and using montages to pick up the pace when necessary. Zellweger’s hilarious turn as Bridget will win over the more cynical members of the crowd, and perhaps even diehard Fielding fans who might have objected to Maguire’s choice of a Texan to play the title role. If viewed lightheartedly, it is difficult to dislike “Bridget Jones’s Diary.”

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