It is like an indisputable law of physics: Sequels are always worse than the originals. But every once in a great while, some upstart comes along and upends the Newtonian applecart. 1974’s The Godfather: Part II was superior to its 1972 predecessor, just as Francis Ford Coppola’s screen adaptation of The Godfather was one of those rare instances when the movie really was better than the book. And although this reviewer can’t tell you how the film franchise compares with Helen Fielding’s chick lit trendsetting novels (written as diaries) which he hasn’t read, Bridget Jones’s Baby is, as far as I can recall about the original 2001 chick flick, much better and funnier than Bridget Jones’s Diary.
Fifteen years later, much of the original crew is back for the sequel, notably including helmer Sharon Maguire and the cast, starring Renée Zellweger as the eponymous character, Colin Firth as her would-be beau Mark Darcy, Sally Phillips as Shazzer, and Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones (now running for political office) as Bridget’s parents. In this iteration Emma Thompson - who co-wrote the screenplay with Fielding and Dan Mazer - joins the mostly British cast as an uptight doctor, with Kate O’Flynn (2014’s Mr. Turner) stealing scenes as Alice, a snarky, younger, trendy, profit-driven producer trying to dumb down the TV news program Jones works on in order to drive its ratings up. Maine-born Patrick Dempsey plays Jack, who is an American - unlike Zellweger, a Texan, who plays the British Bridget.
The plot of Bridget Jones’s Baby revolves around who knocked the unmarried 43 year old up: Jack or Mark? The story is amusing with lots of laughs along the way generated by sight gags, broad slapstick, witty dialogue and more. The screenplay has many mature references minus snickering to sex, body functions, body parts, paternity, etc., which may be in part due to the script’s British provenance (yes, I’m talking to you, Judd Apatow!). However, the pop songs played throughout to comment on the action are very obvious choices.
And without any pride and prejudice I can add that also right on the nose is Fielding’s naming of Firth’s character “Darcy,” which is straight out of Jane Austen 19th century central casting. Firth is good here, although he was much better in 2010’s The King’s Speech, for which he won a Best Actor Oscar, and quite excellent as editor Maxwell Perkins in this year’s very moving Genius, wherein Firth displayed a preternaturally radiant smile as he interacted with the Great American Novelist.
Besides his too, too obvious name I have another problem with his character, which goes to the heart of my reservations about the original Diary. Darcy is a notable human rights attorney, while Jack is one of those computer dating whiz kids whose algorithms have made him immensely wealthy. This makes for some good, humorous but ultimately undeveloped points about the efficacy of using mathematical formulae to plumb the depths of the human heart. However, the fact that - as in the original, wherein both Darcy and Daniel Cleaver vied for Jones’s attention - two very well-to-do, attractive suitors with outstanding careers compete for our gal Bridge in Baby belies what I understand to be the main conceit of the diary-like tales.
Namely, this literary and filmic fancy is that Bridget Jones, who first appeared on the scenes as a character over 30, represents real, ordinary women, with realistic problems, concerns, etc., about weight, romance, aging and so on - not the glammed up Hollywood version of the female of the species. In addition to this supposedly everyday gal having her pick of two extraordinary men - first time around and in the sequel - Bridget has what is, by most common women’s and men’s standards, not only a well paying but what’s usually regarded as a glamorous job: working in television news.
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Compounding these unrealities, casting Lone Star-state born Zellweger is strange - I mean, England is the birthplace of Shakespeare, and methinks the UK has an actress or two of its own. Having said all this, to be fair, Zellweger is good as Bridget and in 1998 she was absolutely stunning as a Hassidic Jew in A Price Above Rubies. I suppose execs with eyes on the bottom line considered casting the then bankable Ms. Zellweger (riding a star power wave after her turns in pics like 1996’s Jerry Maguire opposite Tom Cruise and 2000’s Me, Myself & Irene with Jim Carrey) as the British every-woman would generate more greenery at the box office. Be that as it may, Zellweger was Oscar-nommed for the original and is fine in Bridget redux, playing a character just a few years younger than she actually is (with a stunt stomach, BTW).
Baby’s politics are a baffling hodgepodge. As a would-be politician, Gemma Jones as mum resembles Margaret Thatcher is some shots and disagrees with feminists, asserting that women have already won plenty of rights and what more could they possibly want (or demand)? Well, that’s easy to say in a country which currently has its second female head of government and has repeatedly had a number of woman heads of state, including the long term incumbent, Queen Elizabeth II. But here in the colonies, we can’t even pass the Equal Rights Amendment, although our first female president may be elected in November. (Jill Stein: You go, Green grrrrrl!) And in another scene, at a crucial plot point a women’s rights march blocks Bridget from doing something extremely pressing. And when Darcy defends their cause he is repeatedly given short shrift.
On the other hand, Darcy is a bit like fabled courtroom gladiator William Kunstler, defending the oppressed, including some Pussy Riot-like dissidents in a humorous subplot. And amongst Bridget’s books, one by the UK-based lefty John Pilger - a sort of antipodean Greg Palast or Glenn Greenwald investigative reporter type - is prominently placed. And an older same sex couple is favorably, if briefly, depicted.
But Fielding, Maguire and company make sure that, for the most part, their females enjoy bonking, so they are not too threatening to the male of the species. And motherhood and marriage, those conservative bastions of bourgeois respectability, are still the sine qua non goal our modern gal must attain in order to find meaning and happiness in life.
Having said all this, overall Bridget Jones’s Baby is good fun for all genders, full of laughter and some romance, although due to the candor of some of its language and situations, it is probably not suitable for pre-teens. Yours truly laughed regularly throughout its two droll hours.
You may have noticed that despite his comeback in Florence Foster Jenkins, I haven’t mentioned Hugh Grant, who played such a big role as Daniel Cleaver, Bridget’s other love interest in Diary. In regards to this character, all your plot spoiler averse reviewer will say is that given the state of Zellweger’s career (or lack of - until 2016, she’d been off the screen for six years), now that she’s back riding in the saddle of another starring role, if this chick flick does well I’d expect to see Bridget bringing up baby and returning soon to a theater near you.