It should have been no man's land: a movie based on a best-selling post-feminist novel about a year in the life of a thirty-something Brit career girl trying to kick her addictions to food, cigarettes, booze and male fuckwads while her self-esteem issues grow massive and unwieldy, just like her thighs. Instead, Bridget Jones's Diary delivers frisky fun for bruised romantics regardless of age, sex or nationality. OK, Bridget has a weakness for sentimental hokum that the film shares. The surprise comes in the brash wit that stings when it needs to and in the eye for social irony that has drawn comparison to Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. When Helen Fielding's novel in diary form was published in 1996, Salman Rushdie — yes, that Salman Rushdie — called it "a brilliant comic creation" and added, "Even men will laugh." Well, the movie will make men laugh, too, at themselves as well as at Bridget. If His Satanic Verses Majesty can loosen up, so can you, dude. Here are five reasons why.
1) Renee Zellweger is irresistible. As Bridget, she had me from hello. Never mind all that go-home-Yank resentment over a twiggy Texan putting on twenty pounds and a British accent to portray a character that another actress — say, Kate Winslet — could step into without the heavy lifting. Zellweger nails the role. Barbara Berkery, Gwyneth's dialogue coach for Shakespeare in Love, rounded Zellweger's vowels; a diet of pizza and milkshakes rounded everything else; and an undercover stint at a London publishing house made her comfortable in Bridget's skin as a book publicist. What's great about Zellweger, besides the fact that she has the sexiest squint in movies (take that, Benicio), is the way she blends strength and vulnerability. Whether Bridget is singing along to self-pitying pop anthems like "All by Myself" or answering the phone — "Hello, Bridget Jones, wanton sex goddess with a very bad man between my thighs" — only to find the caller is her mother, Zellweger never hits a false note. Some people still don't cotton to this actress, even after Jerry Maguire and Nurse Betty. On the first season of The Sopranos, Tony's wife, Carmela, ended her friendship with Father Phil when the priest brought her a DVD of One True Thing. "I told you I don't like Renee Zellweger," snapped Carm, who will now have to revise her opinion. After Bridget, Ms. Z is A-list all the way.
2) Helen Fielding, the journalist who dreamed up Bridget for a London newspaper column, has touched a nerve. Bridget's problem really isn't being what Fielding calls a "singleton" in a world full of "smug- marrieds." It's her shabby self-image. One diary entry says it all: "I will not sulk about having no boyfriend, but develop inner poise and authority and sense of self as woman of substance, complete without boyfriend, as best way to obtain boyfriend." Bridget, like the John Cusack character in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, is at war with herself. Wisely, the spirited screenplay that Fielding has crafted with Richard Curtis (Notting Hill) and Andrew Davies (Circle of Friends) takes time to catch Bridget's loneliness in a crowd. Rather than settle for a trendy Brit gloss on Sex and the City or Ally McBeal, Fielding cuts deeper.
3) Sharon Maguire, the documentary filmmaker debuting as a features director, doesn't duck showing the elements that shaped Bridget. The melancholy of her dad (the superb Jim Broadbent) and the flightiness of her mum (Gemma Jones, brilliant as ever) are part of Bridget. That's where the importance of chums comes in. Maguire, a friend of Fielding's, is the inspiration for Shazza (Sally Phillips), one of Bridget's best mates — Jude (Shirley Henderson) and Tom (James Callis) are the others — who stays loyal when lovers disappoint. There's no showing off in Maguire's direction; her gift is making the film feel lived-in.
4) The men aren't all pricks. Well, they are, actually, but the actors who play them compensate nobly. Hugh Grant, dropping his dither, is suavely hilarious as Bridget's boss, Daniel Cleaver, a sexist pig who sends her dirty e-mails: "Love your tits in that top." That Bridget finds this charming is part of her problem. Barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) makes a more likely prospect, but his haughtiness turns Bridget off until he helps her save a disastrous dinner party that ends in a brawl between him and Daniel. It's a funny scene, bolstered by a casting joke: In the novel, Bridget swoons over the 1995 BBC production of Pride and Prejudice, starring Firth as Mr. Darcy, a character who, like Mark, is considered a snob until events uncover his secret heart. Firth risks audience indifference with the slow build of his performance, but the payoff is delicious.
5) The film's psychobabble-bullshit factor is laudably low. There is a happy ending driven by box-office logic, but you don't need to read Fielding's sequel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, published in 1999, to know that Bridget — a mass of lively contradictions — is too savvy to let herself be defined by a male fuckwit. Even men will laugh; they might also learn something. No amount of sappy excess can dim that defiant flash in Zellweger's eyes. Watch her closely. She does herself and Bridget proud.