On the page, Bridget Jones’s most attractive asset is that she’s a mess. The neurotic girl is kind, clever, funny, competent at her job, and a great friend to her fellow singletons; she also drinks too much, smokes too much, obsesses too much, chatters too much, eats junk, and when it comes to men, can’t distinguish between trash (which, in the book, she dashingly calls ”emotional f—wittage”) and quality. Too smart to settle for the perks of ditzhood, she’s also foolish enough to regularly sabotage opportunities for romantic happiness. She’s a Jane Austen naif in a Sex and the City world. When the book came out in 1996, readers went nuts. At last, an anti-role model for the rest of us!

On the screen, where Bridget Jones’s Diary has been adapted from Helen Fielding’s hilarious best-seller by documentarian and first-time feature director Sharon Maguire (an old friend of the author and model for the heroine’s journalist pal Shazzer), Bridget’s most attractive asset is that she’s played by Renee Zellweger. There was a hoo and a ha when the Texas-born Ms. Z was chosen, over plenty of terrific local talent interested in the plum role, to play a bird of such English habits (American women stopped smoking in movies ages ago — bad for the product-endorsement deals, babe). But Zellweger is, in fact, thoroughly charming and believably British in the role. Her confidence in her own flexibility as an actor has visibly grown in just a year following the great reviews she received for her performance in Nurse Betty, and she glows with the pleasing fullness of the 20 pounds she so famously added for the part, all angles softened. (This is not what ”fat” looks like; this is what ripe, sexy health looks like, and she needn’t have dropped the weight afterwards — except, perhaps, to eat lunch again in the demented, scale-obsessed town of Hollywood.)

Hugh Grant is charming too, luxuriating in naughtiness, taking a holiday from his usual floppy, velvet romantic image as Bridget’s caddish boss, Daniel Cleaver, with whom the employee embarks on a bound-for-disaster affair. (”I’ve got a posh voice and a bad character,” Cleaver admits, with Grant’s full support and admiration.) Colin Firth is appealing as the decent, rich, upstanding Mark Darcy, his participation a cunning pretzel of allusive logic: Firth played Mr. Darcy in the exquisite 1995 BBC television adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, the Austen masterpiece on which Bridget Jones’s Diary is anchored. (Jones also interviews Firth on a magazine assignment in Fielding’s frustratingly weak follow-up novel, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason.)

The mess, though, where’s the mess? The hysteria, the middle-of-the-night jitters of loneliness? The mess of Bridget’s life has been tidied, neatened into little piles of mirth and gaiety. The script, by the formidably bright team of Fielding, Andrew Davies (another pretzel — he adapted that BBC Pride and Prejudice), and Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral), grins and cracks wise with pop-cultural jokes and the pretty production values that made Four Weddings so appealing: Bridget’s idea of a cozy evening is watching Frasier on the telly in her flannel pj’s, and her idea of terror is a literary cocktail reception at which she has to make small talk with Salman Rushdie. (He appears as himself, doing a George Plimptonesque cameo, daring any ayatollah to track him down through his theatrical agent.)

Bridget Jones shines with lemon-scented polish and tootles along with a soundtrack that ain’t too proud to use Jamie O’Neal’s cover of Eric Carmen’s ”All by Myself,” Aretha Franklin’s ”Respect,” and Chaka Khan’s ”I’m Every Woman” as directional signals. But without mess and agitation — without trusting viewers to withstand the sight of genuine heartache, and compulsiveness, and a glimpse of real self-destructiveness (it needn’t involve wrist-slashing — a simple hint of a devil in Miss Jones will do), this great screwup of a woman — one of literature’s best antidotes to self-help hysteria in the 1990s — is almost indistinguishable from, oh, the sylphy single woman played by Ashley Judd in Someone Like You, or by Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors, or by Hope Davis in Next Stop Wonderland, or by Ally McBeal or any sitcom sister anywhere in prime time.

After Daniel Cleaver has dumped her (she’s an old cow and he was looking for a new cow, to filch from the psychobabble in Someone Like You), Bridget throws a dinner party to celebrate her birthday. She can’t cook, true, but her lack of skill is endearing and everyone laughs, full of wine. Darcy can cook, he’s gorgeous, and he thinks she’s fab. ”To Bridget…who we love just as she is!” her friends toast in her cozy little kitchen, each object in the room imported by the production designers to signify offbeat domesticity. Well, of course, why wouldn’t they? The movie never shows us anything about Bridget that’s remotely in need of psychological or physical fixing.

Bridget Jones's Diary
  • Movie
  • R
  • 92 minutes