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A Bridget Too Far

Helen Fielding's 1996 best-seller about singletons and their suitors had charm to spare -- so why does the film version have so much trouble coming up with any?

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Who would have believed years ago when the fatwa was raging that some day we would be seeing a movie with the credit line "Salman Rushdie as Himself"? Rushdie shows up as Rushdie in a book-party scene in the new movie Bridget Jones's Diary, starring Renée Zellweger, and that should not be too surprising, since he's on record as having loved the 1996 Helen Fielding novel on which the film is based. ("A brilliant comic creation. Even men will laugh," he blurbs on the book jacket.) I doubt that he, or the novel's many other adherents, will find the movie brilliant. It's even less substantial than the book -- if that's possible. The filmmakers spend so much time milking gags they should have called it Bridget Jones's Dairy.

Fielding's novel, consisting of diary entries covering practically a full year beginning with New Year's Day, is a rat-a-tat spree about a 32-year-old romanceless London malcontent who eventually has to choose between two men, her devastatingly sexy and caddish publishing-house boss, Daniel Cleaver, played in the movie by Hugh Grant, and an eminently eligible but priggish barrister, Mark Darcy, played by Colin Firth. It's a spoofy, Jane Austen-ish setup; even Bridget gets the irony of the "Darcy" surname. (Another in-joke: Firth played Mr. Darcy in the BBC's Pride and Prejudice.) The eminently skimmable book seems to evaporate, page by page, as you read it, and yet it has an endearing clownishness; Bridget is so flummoxed by her femaleness that she comes across as a kind of Notting Hill version of Lucille Ball. The smash success of the novel, not only with women who "saw themselves" in Bridget, but with men, too, may have been in part a reaction to the sobby, rabid humorlessness of much self-consciously feminist literature. Bridget pays lip service to sisterhood but mostly she's a mess of triumphantly unevolved longings and peccadilloes. She's a new-old type: the post-feminist pre-feminist.

The book's comedy needed an especially light and steadying touch to succeed in the movies. Instead, the film, which was directed by Sharon Maguire, a documentarian making her dramatic-feature debut, seems to have been made with an eye to the crowd that flocked to Four Weddings and a Funeral and Notting Hill. Richard Curtis, who along with Fielding and Andrew Davies co-wrote the script, also wrote those two films, and Bridget Jones's Diary shares with them a curdled goofiness. The ultimate effect is a bit condescending, as if smart people were dumbing down their gifts in order to please us. Maybe it's just that British comedies, when they're "dumb," are often at their sharpest, à la Monty Python, while in this film the dumb stuff is just, well, dumb. Jokes that worked well enough on the page, such as Bridget's fear that she will end up dead in her apartment being nibbled by Alsatians, don't translate at all when transferred to the big screen. The film tries to position itself as a comic anthem for unshackled single-womanhood, but it's aimed at the bland middle. Even the two male candidates are bland: Hugh Grant as a fidgety cad isn't much more exciting than his usual stuttery good guy, and Colin Firth creaks with humorless rectitude. Jane Austen would have tossed these two overboard.

The dullness extends to the ways in which Bridget herself is portrayed. Despite the outward impression that Bridget is an "original" even by British standards of eccentricity, she remains a most conventional type: a combination mantrap and snuggle bunny. Renée Zellweger reportedly put on about twenty pounds for the role, and you wonder why she had to: It's enough that Bridget thinks she's overweight. The filmmakers seem oblivious to Zellweger's innate charms, to the smudgy, zonked quality that makes it seem as if she always just woke up from a blissful dream that wasn't quite concluded.

In most movies of this type, the ugly-duckling girl isn't really ugly at all, except to herself; the fun is in seeing her realize what we saw in her all along. But in Bridget Jones's Diary -- which begins its narrative as an onscreen diary and then blithely drops the ploy -- Zellweger is rarely allowed to show us the natural-born princess inside the ditzy, rumpled worrier. What little she does get to show us makes the film tolerable. Zellweger has a gift for appearing simultaneously easygoing and chaotic, and this quality helps tone down some of the brassier aspects of Bridget. She even does well by her British accent, just one more nutty stunt that she pulls off against all odds. As endearingly blotto as Zellweger comes across, she gets the job done. That's her comic specialty. Bridget wants to be loved for being just the way she is, and the film is fortunate in having an actress audiences warm to because they perceive in her an essential sweetness. That sweetness seems unforced, and it's about the only thing in this movie that is.

The women in the Iranian movie The Circle are all fugitives. Two of them, on temporary leave from prison, attempt to flee; a friend of theirs who has escaped prison tries unsuccessfully to get an abortion; another woman is shown abandoning her child on the streets of Tehran; and yet another is picked up for prostitution. The stories of these disparate lives dovetail into one another, and all are given equal weight. Because of government-censorship restrictions, quite a few Iranian movies have centered on childhood rather than adult themes. In The Circle, which is banned in Iran, the enforced society of women is, in effect, a community of adults treated as children. (Women in Tehran are not even allowed to stay outside on their own.) The film's director, Jafar Panahi, gives each of the stories a resonance, even though they are little more than linked vignettes. The ordeals these women endure are made to seem like microcosms of suffering. Panahi holds his camera on the women's faces for extended periods, and their misery and resolution come through with the force of accusation. No wonder the film has been banned.

Bridget Jones's Diary
Directed by Sharon Maguire; starring Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth.
The Circle
Directed by Jafar Panahi.


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