Bridget Jones’s Baby Rediscovers the Joys of the Original

Photo: Universal Pictures

The third Bridget Jones movie, Bridget Jones’s Baby, became notorious when, solely on the basis of its trailer, a male Variety critic implied (I’m decoding, not quoting) that he didn’t find Renée Zellweger as attractive after she’d had cosmetic surgery and that this would surely interfere with his relationship to her character in the film. He wasn’t alone in noting the changes in Zellweger’s face. Months earlier, gossip sites had ridiculed her and commenters piled on. On a recent TV show, her former co-star Hugh Grant pretended not to recognize her photo and followed with his trademark naughty smirk. (What a nice man he is.) It’s true that cosmetic surgery can inhibit a performer’s range of expression, and that’s not negligible. I’ve mentioned it myself in a few reviews. What the Variety piece lacked (apart from an awareness on the part of the writer of his own sense of entitlement) was context. Actresses endure unimaginable pressure — much more than males — to forestall the effects of aging. They’re damned if they don’t do something, and damned if they do and it shows.

In the case of Bridget Jones, there’s a further complication. When Bridget Jones’s Diary became a film, it also became the story of Zellweger’s appearance. That’s because Helen Fielding’s book explicitly centered on a woman’s traumatic relationship with her body, particularly her weight. (How explicit? The heroine’s diary entries begin with her latest gain or loss, which determines how she feels about herself at the start of any given day.) My rave of Zellweger in Slate turned, for better or worse, on an assessment of her body size and the shape of her cheeks:

“She has the perfect visage for a movie with ‘diary’ in the title: Her face is an open book — tremulous, squinchy-eyed, continuously flushing. She's 20 pounds heavier than usual, with balloon cheeks, but the puffiness lightens her, as if she's lofted by an excess of soul. Americans were lucky to get a Scarlett O'Hara with a formal British steeliness; the Brits should offer thanks for a Bridget Jones with a Yank's emotional transparency.”

I wasn’t alone in dwelling on her weight gain, but while I made the case for it, some journalists expressed shock. What actress would deliberately add fat cells? Doesn’t she understand that they never go away? (A more unsavory implication: Doesn’t she worry that males will reject her?) Robert De Niro got ink for gaining an immense amount of weight for Raging Bull, but De Niro’s transformation arguably helped him win an Oscar. And although he never looked quite the same, his feat never dogged him the way Zellweger’s has. Everyone feels entitled to comment freely on her looks.

So: How does she look in Bridget Jones’s Baby? No way I’m going there. Let’s say she looks absolutely right for the role. The focus here is not on Bridget’s appearance but her age and the fact that she’s still single. Her relationship with Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) combusted years earlier and he married someone called Camilla. (Brits hate the name Camilla for obvious reasons.) Bridget muses on the unlikelihood of ever giving birth, which especially hurts because her friends all have kids. She jokes that she’ll be not a MILF but a SILF. (The “S” is for spinster, which made me cringe.) As the movie begins, Bridget is spending her birthday alone — a drunken, bedraggled mess.

Although it’s patchy and gives off an air of trying too hard, the movie is surprisingly funny. It’s not nearly as good as Bridget Jones’s Diary but not nearly as bad as the second film, Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, a camp travesty. I like Zellweger and the filmmakers enough that I was relieved to hear the audience laughing and see people enjoying themselves. If nothing else, it’s alive.

As before, the comedy centers on embarrassment. Bridget does a pratfall into mud. Bridget blurts the exact wrong thing at the exact wrong time to the exact wrong person. Bridget mixes up interview subjects at the TV station where she works as a producer and nearly causes an international incident. But she’s not a stereotypical female dingbat. Working from a screenplay written by the trio of Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Emma Thompson (who plays Bridget’s gynecologist), director Sharon Maguire (the inspiration for the character of “Shazz” in the novels) keeps our heroine grounded. The relatively recent neurological term for being able to hold things together is “executive function,” and Bridget’s lack of it makes her an agent of chaos. But her problems stem from thinking too hard instead of not enough. The patronizing male world and its conservative mores simply put too much pressure on a working woman. The more she pretends to be centered, the more the center cannot hold.

But she has a fair amount of power here. As in Mamma Mia! (which also featured Firth), the plot turns on which of the two men Bridget has recently slept with is the father of the child growing inside her. At a rock festival where she wears blue jean short-shorts and cowboy boots, she stumbles drunkenly into the yurt of Jack (Patrick Dempsey), an American online-dating millionaire — and then, after a few hours of athletic sex, sneaks out in chagrin. Then she sleeps with Mark after learning that he and Camilla are finita. The Brits have a better grasp of traditional farce than us Yanks, and there are excellent scenes in which she (and often Thompson as her OB/GYN) attempts to keep Mark and Jack from bumping into each other and learning the truth. But the movie finally resolves itself into a love triangle. According to Jack’s dating site, she is far more compatible with him than with Mark — a clipped, immaculate, supremely organized litigator. But does she want someone who’s in sync with her or someone less temperamentally attuned to her chaos? In any case, neither man wants to run away from the responsibilities of fatherhood. Quite the reverse.

For all its feminist trappings, Bridget Jones’s Baby evokes the world of Bringing Up Baby and, for that matter, such sitcom landmarks as I Love Lucy, Bewitched, I Dream of Jeannie, etc. — stories of orderly (i.e., anal-retentive) patriarchs exasperated and loosened up by women with what Camille Paglia calls a “chthonic” nature. But the writers are too smart to let that scenario play out in conventional ways. Bridget is crafting her own design for living in a world of extremes. Her conservative mum (Gemma Jones) is running for political office on a “family values” platform that would deny the existence of her daughter and her daughter’s child. On the other side, Mark is currently defending a pugnacious Russian punk outfit modeled on “Pussy Riot” — young women apt to yank off their blouses and snarl London traffic with their protest marches. The symbolism is dizzying when Bridget, in labor, can’t get to the hospital because female protesters have overrun the city and she needs to be carried by males (who stagger under her weight). Is this a Faludi-esque example of backlash — an illustration of the ways in which female self-assertion threatens the nuclear family? Or is it a witty acknowledgement that society as it's presently structured pits women against women?

It’s hard to parse Bridget Jones’s Baby — it’s too inchoate a mixture of feminist and screwball-sitcom tropes. But it certainly keeps you watching, amused and appalled and amused again. Zellweger’s face evokes different things at different times: She’s protecting herself but she’s naked. In a way, her face comes to symbolize all the film’s (and the culture’s) opposing, irreconcilable forces.

The performance that really threw me was Patrick Dempsey’s. He is, objectively, wooden — his line readings sound like line readings. But he’s so out of sync with the crisp, theatrical British tempos that his artificiality seems ... real. He’s totally likable and totally wrong for Bridget/Zellweger. Maybe Jack is a nice guy and maybe he’d worship Bridget. But how could she be with a man who isn’t suitable to reenact Pride and Prejudice again and again? Bridget wants to be thin and beautiful. But more than anything else, she wants to be Elizabeth Bennett. And that’s a fine goal — none is finer — for a heroine for our time.