In 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary, we met Renée Zellweger’s Bridget sitting alone in her apartment, drinking wine and lip syncing to a cover of “All By Myself.” Zellweger, who would be nominated for an Oscar for the role, seemed to breathe in Bridget and effortlessly embody her self-deprecating humor and rueful determination to better herself.
The Bridget of that first movie felt more closely related to the Bridget of the first two books by Helen Fielding. That Bridget had a habit of setting firm goals for herself and then watching herself almost helplessly as she embraced calories, alcohol units, and emotional fuckwits anyway. She was deadly serious about analyzing her and her friends’ relationships through the lens of self-help books and advice from such figures as the Baroness from The Sound of Music. She was childishly giddy at simple pleasures like the chance to go on a “mini-break” with her pseudo-boyfriend (and aforementioned fuckwit) Daniel Cleaver.
She was not sarcastic, except sometimes in that way people who are not naturally sarcastic will try too hard to be. Frequently imperious when she believed she had found the moral high ground, it was usually only a matter of time until someone burst her bubble.
During the movie’s opening credits, Bridget swills red wine and sings into a rolled-up magazine, pumping her arms and kicking in time with the music with wry self-awareness—but when the chorus begins she is near tears.
Bridget was always more than your average two-dimensional rom-com heroine. She was not the woman with glasses and her hair pulled back who suddenly became beautiful after the world’s laziest makeover. She was not the size-two woman who talked endlessly and improbably of eating too much junk food, or the woman who occasionally tripped and fell because she had been given intermittent clumsiness by scriptwriters instead of a personality.
Bridget’s failings felt familiar, not clichéd, and her triumphs felt like personal victories for her fans. In the first book, Bridget Jones’s Diary, Bridget describes rooting for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy in the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice in the way she imagines sports fans root for teams. “The testosterone-crazed fans do not wish themselves on the pitch,” she notes, “instead seeing their team as their chosen representatives, rather like Parliament. That is precisely my feeling about Darcy and Elizabeth.”
When our chosen representative Bridget fell—or careened down a fire pole into a recording video camera—she fell hard. But we rooted that much harder for her to get back up.
In addition to all that, the books and (for the most part) movies were actually funny. That just doesn’t happen with romantic comedies anymore. It is rare.
Unfortunately for Bridget’s fans—out here in the stands—it also appears to be very hard to sustain.
The newest movie, Bridget Jones’s Baby, begins with a forty-three-year-old Bridget sitting alone in her apartment considering a birthday cupcake with one lit candle. “All By Myself” begins to play, but then she turns it off and plays House of Pain’s “Jump Around” instead. She begins to dance through her apartment, sloshing wine and jumping onto her bed.
Meanwhile, she is inexplicably carrying several lacy bras as she dances around. This is about as much of a Normal Woman Thing To Do as laughing at salads. Gone is Zellweger’s effortlessness. Instead, there is something more forced.
After her mother calls to suggest she freeze her eggs, New Bridget heads off to work in a sleek dress as her narrating voice explains that, while she is sad about not having a baby, there are “shallower compensations.” For instance, she says: “At least I’m finally down to my perfect weight.” This was an unexpected acknowledgement that Zellweger’s Bridget is no longer full-figured (nor, as was once predicted, is she wearing a fat suit).
Bridget is also now competent at her job. She strides around issuing orders to lower-level producers at the TV show where she works, her voice becoming strangely stilted as she rattles off the names of world leaders. If she appears to us to be slightly uncomfortable in her new skin, we are assured rather firmly that that is not the case: she says she is happy and beloved by her coworkers, who have pushed Jude, Shazzer, and Tom somewhat aside. Her workplace is also more professional that it was when we last encountered it. She has the same boss (Richard Finch), but he’s nicer. When Millennials arrive to take over the show (for some reason), suddenly sympathetic Richard grows a silly hipster beard with a waxed moustache. Later, when the new cold, hipster boss wants to fire Bridget, he indignantly declares she is “the heart” of the show. “How could you want to fire her?” he asks in astonishment.
New Bridget, new job, new generation—and meanwhile, Daniel Cleaver (her perennial heartthrob of movies yore, played by the laddish Hugh Grant) is dead. (Or presumed dead; his body was never found.) This seems to be a joke at Grant’s expense because of the actor’s refusal to participate in this latest Bridget Jones venture. Surrounded by pale waifs at his funeral, Bridget sardonically notes that his death has hit the Eastern European modeling community particularly hard, as her friends snicker. She predicts what the heavily accented young women will say in their remembrances. She smirks. She seems blasé and uncaring. Her friends and coworkers might be nicer, but Bridget is meaner.
At the funeral, Bridget spies Colin Firth’s Mark Darcy with his new, willowy wife—a mute character who exists only to represent a temporary obstacle to Bridget. Yes, Mark is married to someone else. No, he and Bridget didn’t get married after all. A vague explanation about his workaholic nature is offered, with unconvincing, awkwardly staged flashbacks.
With Daniel dead, Mark married, no baby and no dieting goals to aspire to, Bridget rather lamely announces she will dedicate her “autumn years” to the “pursuit of hedonism.” Her TV host friend Miranda (Bridget is apparently no longer on-camera talent) tricks her into attending a music festival where she falls into the mud on cue—ruining her white outfit—and is rescued by Patrick Dempsey’s Jack Quant. (It is later revealed he works with algorithms. Bridget Jones movies make puns now?) Jack—the American understudy for the late Daniel—lifts New Bridget out of the mud with no effort. Later, she puts on short jean shorts, revealing low-circumference thighs, and sits lightly on Miranda’s shoulders to watch Ed Sheeran perform.
Bridget jokes that the festival is “like Sodom and Gomorrah with tofu.” (Bible references, Bridge?) She then derides “glamping”—glamorous camping—by saying you couldn’t make Hitler better by calling him “Gladolf Hitler.” Miranda acts as if these are very typical witticisms for Bridget.
Also while at the festival, Bridget and Miranda take shots while reciting a genocidal African dictator’s name, which contains a difficult clicking sound they had repeatedly practiced before a news segment about him. This is a somewhat harsh update to the scene in the first movie where she practices pronouncing “Chechnyaaa” to impress Daniel.
Flippancy about international crises is, for some reason, a running theme in the movie. We later see Mark express sarcastic sympathy for the “totalitarian dictator” against whom he is defending a Pussy Riot-esque group of female protesters in international court. He derides their level of musicianship and practically rolls his eyes when they begin chanting protests.
All this is, frankly, an echo of the late Daniel Cleaver’s sense of humor—not Mark’s and Bridget’s. It sounds wrong coming from them. Historically they have not been the sorts of people who joke about human rights atrocities. At least Daniel, who very much was that sort of person, was honest enough to respond to Bridget’s Chechnya inquiries by saying: “I couldn’t give a fuck, Jones.” Part of Daniel’s charm was in knowing who he was, for better or worse. Without him, the Bridget Jones’s Baby screenwriters seem at a loss for where to put those jokes, deciding in the end to assign them at random.
However, none of Daniel’s wit was willed to his successor, Jack. Jack is eventually revealed to be a millionaire because he created a dating site based on algorithms. In a particularly cringe-worthy scene, Mark plugs his and Bridget’s profiles into the site only to find a low compatibility score. He then tries Bridget’s and Jack’s profiles and sees a high score. What, exactly, is the information in these magical profiles? How did the profiles come to be, given that he and Bridget had only just learned of the site? Why would a dating site allow one person to test the compatibility of two other people without their permission? We do not know.
Jack’s other defining characteristic, introduced rather late in the movie, is that he believes in “super juices” and “negative energy.” Rather than challenging Mark to a fight for Bridget’s heart, as in former films in the series (to the comic strains of “It’s Raining Men”), Jack calls him “buddy.” At one point, he bizarrely claims to have a crush on Mary Crawley from Downton Abbey. By the third or fourth reference to Jack’s kooky tendencies, his suitability as Bridget’s partner is beyond credulity, and the rest of the movie becomes a waiting game for Mark to—for the third time—realize that he and Bridget are meant to be.
And what about the titular baby? As anyone vaguely familiar with the movie’s premise knows, Bridget gets pregnant after having two one-night stands—one with Mark and one with Jack. Who is the father? You would think such a premise would provide some tension or suspense, but it doesn’t. Bridget honestly seems somewhat unfazed by the development. The screenwriters seem gleeful to return to making jokes about her weight, both former and current.
Jack is no Daniel—but meanwhile, Mark is no Mark either. He spends most of the movie in a strange stupor, suddenly so cartoonish, stodgy, and stilted that he can’t express emotions in front of a woman he’s been with on and off for more than ten years, a woman to whom he previously learned to express his love on at least two separate occasions after two other learning experiences. Some lip service is paid to the question of whether they can make it work after such a long history of breakups and misunderstandings, and the eventual answer seems to be: “Sure.”
As for New Bridget—in addition to her transformed appearance, professional aptitude, and sense of humor—she seems to have lost her gumption. At various points in the movie, other characters praise her strength and courage, but we never see much evidence of either. Jack declares out of nowhere that she will be “the greatest possible mother.” Mark, during a pep talk, vaguely ticks off things she’s overcome in previous, more entertaining adventures, including an unprompted reference to her “insane” mother—who, by the way, is allowed barely any screen time in the movie. (Bridget’s mum does get off one of the movie’s better lines, in reaction to what she perceives to be women’s rights activists. “Honestly, do we need any more rights?” she scoffs with perfect timing.)
Perhaps Bridget fans who watched the movies but never read the books might not find this movie to be such a hard blow. The second movie was significantly inferior to the first; this latest installment might feel like the next logical step in a gradual journey toward humorlessness. But those who read the books—and those who loved the pilgrim soul in Bridget—will feel the loss more keenly.
Old Bridget was funny. In the first book, she makes a well-received suggestion to her boss, then-creepy Richard: “‘You, my darling,’ he said to one of my breasts, ‘are an absolute fucking genius.’ I always hoped I would turn out to be a genius, but I never believed it would actually happen to me—or my left breast.”
Old Bridget was sensitive. In the same book, Bridget bursts into tears when she discovers her friend Tom hiding out with a bruised face, believing he has been the victim of a hate crime: “‘What happened?’ I said again, tears beginning to plop down my cheeks. ‘Er, well…’ said Tom, extracting himself awkwardly from my embrace, ‘actually I, er, I had a nose job.’”
And Old Bridget was resilient. I have written about how Helen Fielding succeeding in making Bridget a modern successor to Jane Austen’s heroines; indeed, the first Bridget book was based on Pride and Prejudice and the second on Persuasion. Bridget had different obstacles than her predecessors—and was considerably sillier—but in the end she was always revealed to have resilience reminiscent of Elizabeth, Anne, and the rest.
In the second book, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, when Bridget is wrongfully arrested on drug charges in Thailand, she is assigned a rather hapless, unambitious representative from the British embassy to plead her case. He takes perfunctory notes on her version of things while offering such observations as “Yar, yar. Oh Christ, how frightful.” Bridget laments it’s “as if I were telling him a polo anecdote.”
But over time, she is able to win him over and coax him into agreeing to attempt “a diplomatic coup” on her behalf, which she suggests might be good for his career. Sure enough, one night she is summoned by the guards, swept away to the embassy and put on a plane:
Was all a blur, rushed out in steamy night to car, rushing through streets full of goats and tuk-tuks and honking and people with entire families on one bicycle… Did not have to go through normal channel but some special Embassy route, everything all stamped and cleared. Got to the gate, whole area was empty, plane ready to leave with just one guy in a luminous yellow jacket waiting for us… He handed me my passport and shook my hand in really quite a respectful way such as was not at all used to even before incarceration. “You did very well,” he said. “Well done, Miss Jones.”
I love that line. I love it almost as much as I love hearing Captain Wentworth in Persuasion say, “No one so proper, so capable as Anne.”
So often, Bridget felt ignored or dismissed, whether by her work superiors, the men she went out with, her smug married friends, or even her singleton friends (a frequent refrain of theirs is “Shut up, Bridge, you’re drunk”). When someone—Mark or anyone else—recognizes her inner worth, it feels like a balm. Like Austen’s heroines before her, she has soldiered on with little recognition from those around her until she is finally seen.
I could talk about how the movie doesn’t make sense for other reasons—I’ve also written about my confusion regarding Fielding’s third book, an overlong, labored work in which Bridget is impregnated and widowed by Mark—or say more about how strange it feels to watch a skinny Bridget, but how it probably isn’t fair to expect Zellweger to keep yo-yo dieting for movies (even though Bridget’s canonical weight of 130 pounds is not, to most of us, a staggering number). I could lament the screenwriting process that drove Grant away and gave us a poor replacement, and wonder how much Goddess Emma Thompson struggled when she was recruited to clean up the script, and guess at what page she finally gave up. I could quote the strange platitudes that pepper the film, like “Falling in love doesn’t happen on paper.”
But in the end, it’s not Bridget’s weight or even who her suitors are that signal the end of Old Bridget. It’s her three-dimensionality as a character—not her size as a woman—that is missing. RIP.