Plans to film the British best-seller "Bridget Jones's Diary" generated early buzz, not all of it positive. The title character of Helen Fielding's book (which was based in turn on a series of her newspaper columns) is a 30-something career girl obsessed with both her weight and her apparent inability to meet a "nice, sensible man"; across the pond, fans of the novel considered it downright sacrilege that perky, disarming American actress Renee Zellweger was chosen to play Bridget in the movie (the feature debut of filmmaker Sharon Maguire). Wouldn't the role, they wondered, have better suited the beautiful, big-boned Kate Winslet -- or almost any another English actress of her generation?
Remember, suspicious minds: Gwyneth Paltrow was just fine in Shakespeare in Love. And the very able Zellweger is equally adorable -- and convincing -- as an angst-filled London gal on the loose as she was as a needy single mom in "Jerry Maguire" or an emotionally scarred housewife in Nurse Betty. Yes, it's initially rather jarring to hear an English accent come out of the Texas-born thespian's mouth. But that discomfort is short-lived, due to Zellweger's undeniable talents and the insight she no doubt gained by working with Barbara Berkery, Paltrow's former dialogue coach.
In some ways, Bridget resembles John Cusack's character in High Fidelity (another popular British novel that was given an even more extensive American makeover for the screen): She's several years past the age of marrying young, confused about her love life and pessimistic about the prospects for her future. When she's not spilling her secrets to her closest girlfriends, Shazza (Sally Phillips) and Jude (Shirley Henderson), or to her token gay pal, Tom (James Callis), Bridget is given to drowning her sorrows in drink. What could be more comforting to a wounded spirit than spending a long winter's evening by the fireplace, relaxing in her pajamas while sipping wine, eating breadsticks, smoking cigarettes, engaging in a little therapeutic sobbing and lip-syncing to the sounds of Gilbert O' Sullivan's "Alone Again (Naturally)?"
Love -- or something resembling it -- threatens to take Bridget away from all that when she winds up in bed with the handsome Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), the head of the small publishing company where she works as a publicist. At first, Daniel is fun-loving and attentive; when he ceases to be so, Bridget crash-lands back into the land of the lonely hearts, courtesy of a cad who may or may not resemble the Hugh Grant we've come to know through the headlines. "I'm a terrible disaster with a posh voice and a bad character," Daniel says, offering a joking apology. Grant performs admirably in the somewhat undeveloped role; it's refreshing to see him continue down the dishonest-charmer career path he began in "Small Time Crooks," rather than reprising his overly familiar portrayal of a stumbling, bumbling but inherently decent fellow.
Colin Firth is also impressive as Mark Darcy, a rather pompous human-rights lawyer whose troubled past is tangled up with Daniel's. At first, Mark comes off as the devil in disguise, a snob who's all too willing to cause poor Bridget no end of social discomfort. Later, he rips off the mask to reveal his inner nice guy, a wonderful man with a little too much Billy Joel on his mind: "I like you very much just the way you are," he confesses to the object of his affection.
As if the upheaval of Bridget's romantic life (and eventually her career) aren't enough for her to deal with, she's also upset by troubles on the homestead. Mom (Gemma Jones) has up and run off with the unctuous host of a home-shopping program, and Dad (Jim Broadbent) is mired in depression over her departure. It makes for an amusing subplot, and yet another opportunity for the excellent Broadbent (Topsy Turvy) to demonstrate his considerable gifts.
Yet for all the film's strong points, something is lacking. The success of Fielding's novel was credited in part to the sting of Bridget's self-deprecating remarks, the bite of her commentary on the pitfalls of modern dating, and a dash of social criticism inspired by "Pride and Prejudice." Few of those attributes are in evidence here. Instead, "Bridget Jones's Diary" has morphed into a pleasant romantic comedy, one that's certainly smarter and funnier than other examples of the genre, but hardly more memorable.