Bridget Jones mines the riches of embarrassment. Her gaffes, blunders, stumbles and pratfalls provide the laughs in the atypical rom-coms built around her, films that rely heavily on the comedy of idiosyncrasy. Bridget is no outsider: She’s a straight, white, middle-class, university-educated woman with a London apartment, a media job and a gaggle of friends. She’s also an odd duck who never manages to fly in formation. But clumsiness turns out to be her saving grace. Her willingness to leap headlong into intimidating situations and brave the mortifying consequences defines the character as much as her pursuit of storybook romance or desire for poise and confidence.
At the start of Bridget Jones’s Baby, our intrepid heroine (Renée Zellweger) seems back at square one: alone on an important night, consoling herself by drinking wine and singing along to “All by Myself.” (Could those be the same pajama bottoms she wore in Bridget Jones’s Diary?) Zellweger’s voice-over strikes the familiar self-excoriating tone as Bridget reminds herself of the gap between aspirations and outcome. But as much as this latest installment draws on affection for the snappy first film, which blended Absolutely Fabulous with Pride and Prejudice (sans zombies), it’s the differences that make Bridget Jones’s Baby the warmest and most satisfying of the series.
Helen Fielding introduced Bridget Jones in 1995 in comic newspaper columns written as diary entries, and then returned to The Independent 10 years, several novels and two film adaptations later for an update detailing the character’s unexpected pregnancy. The twist? Bridget doesn’t know whether the father is Daniel Cleaver or Mark Darcy, her naughty and nice exes, portrayed by Hugh Grant and Colin Firth in the first two films. Cleaver played a large part in Fielding's scenario, but when Grant declined to reprise the role, it necessitated a rethink. Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey) now occupies that corner of the love triangle: He's a charming, cocksure American tech mogul who knows how to pitch woo.
Even without that crucial switch, this third feature might have suffered from the sequelitis of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason: more of the same, only bigger and wackier. (Events from that 2004 installment, which was deftly directed by Beeban Kidron, have been expunged from the current Bridget Jones universe, which references only the 2001 original.) In Fielding’s 2005-06 columns, Bridget and her friends are unchanged in their 40s. They frequent bars with the same crowd, still drink too much and shirk responsibility with undiminished aplomb. The screenplay by Fielding, Dan Mazer (I Give It a Year) and Emma Thompson lays out a more interesting scenario, allowing Bridget to evolve without losing her reckless optimism.
Bridget's friends Jude (Shirley Henderson) and Shazzer (Sally Phillips) are still deliciously rude, but they’re married with growing families. Even self-absorbed Tom (James Callus) is adopting a child with his partner, which leaves Bridget the last singleton. Instead of wallowing in the self-pity that opening scene suggests, she seizes the moment as an opportunity for rebranding: No more tragic spinster, Bridget’s now a mature sexpot. The last time she made a bold declaration, the New Year’s resolution to straighten up and find a decent man in Bridget Jones’s Diary, she connected with Cleaver and Darcy. This time she meets the dashing Jack, while the brooding Darcy reasserts himself.
Director Sharon Maguire (who made her feature debut with Bridget Jones’s Diary) toys with the wish-fulfillment aspect of the films by treating one encounter as a cheeky fairy tale. After a gallant Jack has pulled Bridget out of a massive mud puddle, he digs her lost shoe from the muck, fits it on her foot and declares, “It fits!” before Bridget, as a red-faced Cinderella, flees without a word. Maguire expertly handles the humor (intricate misunderstandings, exquisite slapstick, Emma Thompson achieving Eve Arden–level quip delivery), but her greatest strength is establishing a balance: Bridget Jones’s Baby is a romantic comedy that’s truly both. There’s no filler in its 122 minutes, which allows the characters enough breathing room to consider their choices.
This especially helps Darcy, who’s grown more emotionally closed-off. In Diary, Maguire captured Firth’s priceless expressions, which conveyed what Darcy couldn’t speak: a death-ray stare aimed at Cleaver, the sideways glance at a guffawing Bridget that captures the longing of a well-bred boy who realizes he’s missing the fun. In one smoldering gaze in this film, Firth melts away all of Darcy’s careful hesitancy. The character had become a chiding scold in Edge of Reason, but here he’s allowed to be funny again. Darcy’s dry wit is well suited to the more grown-up Bridget Jones’s Baby, and his defense of a Pussy Riot–like band pays off in delightfully droll ways.
As for Bridget: She's shed the excess weight and bad habits that once defined her, become a television news producer, and faced romantic disillusionment. Zellweger has also added a new element to Bridget, a quality of airiness fused with solidity that suggests Jean Arthur. When Bridget tells Jack and Mark that either could be the father, the scene is staged for uncomfortable laughter (which it gets), but her quiet revelation also delivers a gut-punch. Critics and entertainment journalists who have focused their coverage on Zellweger's appearance have overlooked her development into a strong character actress. Her wise, light-hearted performance anchors this happy reunion, a surprising and refreshing gift from a creative well that seemed to have run dry.