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(2001) (Renee Zellweger, Hugh Grant) (R)

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Romantic Comedy: A single, thirty-something woman decides to get her life in order by losing weight, giving up various vices and finding a man.
It's the beginning of the new year for Bridget Jones (RENÉE ZELLWEGER), a 32-year-old, single woman who works at London publishing house. Determined to improve her life by losing weight, cutting down on cigarettes and booze, and finding a man, Bridget begins keeping a diary to record her attempts and thoughts about such efforts.

While the first two are up to just her, the latter obviously requires a willing man. Among her immediate choices is Mark Darcy (COLIN FIRTH), a staid and proper, but divorced barrister who she's known but not particularly liked since they were kids. Then there's Daniel Cleaver (HUGH GRANT), a terribly charming and handsome chap who just so happens to be her boss.

After a bout of flirting, she chooses Daniel - who claims Darcy stole his fiancée in the past - and they begin a passionate affair. Yet, when one part of her life goes well, the other inevitably falls apart as she discovers that her parents (JIM BROADBENT and GEMMA JONES) are separating, with her mother beginning a relationship with her boss, a TV shopping channel host.

Bridget's close friends, Tom (JAMES CALLIS), Shazza (SALLY PHILLIPS) and Jude (SHIRLEY HENDERSON) couldn't be happier for her regarding her relationship, while Darcy - who's involved with fellow lawyer Natasha (EMBETH DAVIDTZ) - seems a bit disturbed by that and even somewhat interested in Bridget.

Bridget's happiness ends, however, when she discovers Daniel with another woman. From that point on, and with the help of her friends, Bridget decides to follow through on her resolutions that ultimately include choosing between Daniel and Darcy as her lover.

OUR TAKE: 7.5 out of 10
Due to the inherent complexity of staging, mounting and then executing a feature length theatrical film, most first time directors - no matter their experience in the business or directorial know-how elsewhere or in other fields - usually choose to helm low profile, low budget or uncontroversial films that are apt to fly under the radar screen of most mainstream viewers.

It's not that they're trying to hide their work, but rather that they'd prefer to cut their teeth on projects that won't involve a great deal of critical or public scrutiny, and thus enable them to learn from their mistakes for their subsequent, higher profile efforts. Of course, for every well-known Tom Hanks whose first film was good, but relatively unnoticed ("That Thing You Do!"), there's a McG, a music video director who comes out of the gates aiming for the bleachers and hits a home run (at least from a financial perspective) with his big screen adaptation of "Charlie's Angels."

While novice director Sharon Maguire's first film isn't of the same scope, scale or budget as McG's effort, her adaptation of Bridget Jones's Diary is bound to draw far more critical scrutiny, at least from the legion of fans who loved the novel of the same name. Released in 1996, author Helen Fielding's work - based itself on her column in London's Independent newspaper - immediately struck a chord with female readers around the world who no doubt identified with the title character's continual battle with her weight, bad habits, self doubts and inability to find a long-term significant other.

Bringing a popular novel to the screen is no easy task, not only due to the inherent differences in the mediums but also readers' preconceived notions about everything related to the literary work. Many accomplished directors - not to mention mere novices - have failed with reckless and spectacular abandon over the years trying to turn books into movies.

While I haven't read Fielding's novel and thus can't make any real comparisons, I can say that Maguire's version is an extremely entertaining if obviously carefully calculated picture. Working from a screenplay by Fielding and Richard Curtis ("Notting Hill," "Four Weddings and a Funeral"), Maguire is obviously trying to emulate what made those other Brit comedies by Curtis work so well, and for the most part she wonderfully succeeds.

Something of a combination of those thoroughly enjoyable (and highly profitable) pictures, HBO's "Sex and the City" and the neuroticism and fantastical moments that fuel "Ally McBeal," the story focuses on a year in the life of the title character as she begins keeping a diary about her various vices, thoughts, hopes and dreams. Accordingly, we hear various bits of that via voice-over narration and such observations are often rather funny and enjoyable. The basic plot - that follows Bridget's life for that one year and involves her relationships with two vastly different men - also works rather well and is entertaining throughout.

It's the charming characters, terrific cast that embody them and the fun performances they deliver, however, that make the film so enjoyable to behold. While much was initially made about the uproar over casting Texan Renée Zellweger ("Nurse Betty," "Jerry Maguire") as Bridget and then of the unheard of notion of the weight that she put on for the role (as far as the concept for an actress, not the actual pounds), I can't imagine a more perfect choice for the role.

While I can't attest for the quality of her adopted British accent, it sounded more than good enough for me and is certain to fool the vast majority of viewers. Even if it doesn't, Zellweger so becomes the character that it really won't matter, as her neurotic and maladroit, but cute and charming character persona will win over all but the most persnickety of viewers. It's a fabulous performance, and very well could lead to some award nominations and other accolades later this year and early next year.

As one of her suitors, Hugh Grant ("Mickey Blue Eyes," "Notting Hill") is equally terrific. Jettisoning much of the neurotic mannerisms and vocal tics that made him so endearing to audiences in many of his films, Grant creates a fabulous romantic comedy character. While Daniel certainly isn't without his share of faults, his charming and irresistible ways and good looks will nevertheless sway viewers as easily as he does with Bridget.

Colin Firth ("Shakespeare in Love," "The English Patient") has less external charismatic leeway with his mostly stuffy barrister character, but still manages to deliver a good and ultimately winning performance within those parameters.

Where the film falters a bit and shows some of its imitative and calculated tendencies is with its supporting characters. Those played by James Callis (various TV programs), Sally Phillips (various BBC programs) and Shirley Henderson ("The Claim," "Topsy-Turvy") - while often rather entertaining - come straight out of the factory that routinely pumps out such eccentric, wacky and exuberant types for films such as this. It's certainly not a horrible problem as they serve their purpose, but they're nothing more than two-dimensional cinematic creations with just one predictable reason for existing.

Also less than satisfying is the subplot involving Jim Broadbent ("Topsy-Turvy," "Little Voice") and Gemma Jones ("The Winslow Boy," "Sense and Sensibility") as Bridget's parents whose marriage is on the rocks. While it's apparent that their story is present to show Bridget that love can exist and withstand various problems, the whole bit with them doesn't work as well as probably intended.

Thankfully, that's just a small part of this otherwise highly entertaining film. While the Ally McBeal type fantasy material evaporate after a while, there are enough funny and charming moments - touched by that unique British style of humor - along with terrific performances from Zellweger and Grant, to make this a delightful romantic comedy. Fun, charming and exuding the similar feel and aura that made "Notting Hill" and "Four Weddings and a Funeral" so popular, "Bridget Jones's Diary" rates as a 7.5 out of 10.

Reviewed March 29, 2001 / Posted April 13, 2001

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