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When Fan Service Meets Bridget Jones

With ‘Bridget Jones’s Baby,’ romantic comedies are getting the sequel treatment previously reserved for blockbusters

Universal Studios/Ringer illustration
Universal Studios/Ringer illustration

After the Hugh Grant funeral, but before the titular character of Bridget Jones’s Baby arrives, Bridget Jones makes a friend. His name is Jack, and he’s played by Patrick Dempsey, which is a signal to everyone at home that he will: (a) say some extremely romantic things, and (b) eventually get discarded. That’s not a spoiler; it’s the Law of Dempsey. Bridget meets Jack; Bridget does her signature “get slightly but charmingly drunk and wander around in a public setting” act, which conveniently lands her in Jack’s Glastonbury-or-similar yurt; and then Bridget, 43, suddenly skinny but still extremely awkward, runs away.

Jack, after some plot shenanigans that make this slightly less creepy than it’s going to sound, shows up at her home. It’s the same apartment from the first movie, but with some Nancy Meyers–level renovation: Viking range, wide floorboards, natural light. The coveting of Bridget Jones’s apartment is maybe the first sign that we’re in a different franchise here, but stay with me. Jack has a bag, and in that bag are the tokens of a relationship that he and Bridget never got to have. Here is the takeout from Ottolenghi, where they would’ve gone on their first proper date. Here is a stuffed bear that Jack won Bridget at a carnival. Here are the flowers Jack bought after their first fight. It would be mortifying if someone did this in real life — the gifts are a little banal, and also please don’t show up at people’s homes unannounced with stalker gifts — but I knew that this scene would become a reference point, like Andrew Lincoln’s Love Actually flashcards or Julia Roberts’s “I’m also just a girl, standing in front of a boy” speech from Notting Hill. There are masters at work here. We have achieved rom-com nirvana.

The short version: Bridget Jones’s Baby, the third, much-troubled installment of the Bridget Jones series, is a delight. Go see it. We deserve more movies like this; it shouldn’t be so hard to put attractive, charming, British people on a screen and let them fall in love according to a formula that is literally as old as filmmaking. I will happily serve on the board of the Foundation to Get Emma Thompson to Fix All Women-Centric Scripts if that’s what it takes. Colin Firth continues to be the second-most-compelling romantic lead of the 21st century (after Ryan Gosling); he should do a whole Netflix show that is just him in different suits staring stonily into the screen and then, at minute 45, breaking into that wide, almost holy smile. Renée Zellweger, the long-suffering Bridget, looks great, and fuck you if you think differently. There’s a baby, and it’s cute.

Even Dempsey holds his own, though I could do without the health-conscious internet entrepreneur as a millennial rom-com trope. (Tech wizards are the new architects; plan accordingly.) It’s fine; we needed a third point in the love triangle, and McDreamy was available. These are the compromises you make to fall in love onscreen in 2016.

A slightly less recent compromise: Bridget Jones was created in 1995 by Helen Fielding, a British journalist who got shut out of hard-news assignments and took on a women’s column in The Independent to pay the bills. (The mediums have changed; journalism has not.) To avoid personal embarrassment, Fielding wrote the installments as diary entries of a fictional woman named Bridget — 30-something, unmarried, wildly neurotic, warped by popular culture. Bridget was not particularly good at her job and always 10 pounds heavier than her goal weight, which made her accessible. She wrote in clipped, randomly insightful prose, which made her funny. An all-timer: “It is proved by surveys that happiness does not come from love, wealth or power but the pursuit of attainable goals: and what is a diet if not that?” Another classic, from an April 25, 1995, column about her morning routine:

She leaves the house at 10:35 a.m.

Bridget’s particular lingo — singleton, smug marrieds, emotional fuckwittage — became common parlance; her dieting and office affairs became a feminist controversy. By the time the movie was released — based on the book, which was heavily cribbed from Pride and Prejudice, right down to the Mr. Darcy — Bridget was considered, at least in Anglophile circles, an icon for striving single white women everywhere. People fought over who should play her in the movie. Even Tilda Swinton auditioned.

The original Bridget Jones’s Diary (2001), written by Fielding with help from British romance legend Richard Curtis (Four Weddings and a Funeral, Notting Hill, Love Actually), and directed by Sharon Maguire, is, for my money, the greatest romantic comedy of the modern era. It has at least five iconic scenes: Renée Zellweger’s Celine Dion performance during the titles; the meet-cute with the dreadful parents and the reindeer sweaters; the incident with the fireman’s pole, which doubles as “the close-up of all the weight Renée Zellweger gained to play this role”; the “It’s Raining Men” fight between Colin Firth and Hugh Grant; and the eminently quotable “I like you very much, just as you are” speech. Zellweger’s performance is vulnerable and mortifying; her chemistry with Firth is an untapped source of renewable energy. They wind up together. You knew that.

“The problem with Bridget and Ally [McBeal],” wrote Ginia Bellafante in a scathing Time magazine cover story about 1998 feminism “is that they are presented as archetypes of single womanhood even though they are little more than composites of frivolous neuroses.” Bellafante was trying to criticize here, I think, but she’s not wrong: Bridget, both book and movie, is a walking worry bomb, a summation of every fear and mortification that plagues a woman failing To Have It All. Romantic comedies are supposed to be about squealing and romance, but Bridget Jones’s Diary is the most comforting portrayal of anxiety that I have ever seen. Bridget is in debt, underemployed, and unsatisfied. She makes mistakes, she drinks too much. She is relatable but not aspirational. She will, in her own words, “always be just a little bit fat.” It is valid to interpret the arc of Bridget Jones’s Diary as a retro tale about a messy, privileged woman who gets saved by a rich dude, but I have always chosen to watch it as an optimistic story about a mediocre, terrified woman who deserves friends and a career and love. She is still trying, despite a whole society’s worth of expectation and judgment. It’s possibly the greatest fairy tale of them all.

We’re in new-ish waters as far as rom-com fan service goes. The Hollywood machines that brought you Star Wars 1–9 and four Hunger Gameses and a six-season TV series about the guy who pushes the buttons at the Iron Man factory are only just getting around to the marriage plot. They can’t be expected to get it all right, and even in the hands of Sharon Maguire, Helen Fielding, and Emma Thompson, Bridget Jones’s Baby makes some mistakes.

There’s the nice, renovated apartment, which raises a lot of questions about how a moderately successful TV producer could afford to purchase a multiroom home during London’s real estate boom. The clothes are way better; the men are much nicer to her. Bridget can make it through a whole SoulCycle class without falling off her bike. The Hugh Grant absence is rude. I hate to harp on weight issues, but it’s bullshit that Bridget is so thin in this movie — not because thin is bad (it’s not), or because you should worry about your weight (you shouldn’t), but because it’s an honest struggle magicked away with no explanation.

“There were interesting conversations with Sharon Maguire, the director, about how [Bridget] might have gotten her life together,” Zellweger told The New York Times, as if to ward off any fan complaints. “She’s a little bit more mature, she’s progressed professionally, moved into property ownership in London and has achieved her ideal weight. And still her life is a relative mess. I like the message in that: that we can tick off the boxes, and yet we still don’t quite have it together.”

This is true, and also a gentle admission of shifted priorities. “Achieved” is not a verb we’ve used around here before. It is impossible to fault the filmmakers for picking wish fulfillment over awkwardness — it is honest to the genre, if not this character, and it makes for a two-hour charm fest, full of misunderstandings and babies and dry English humor. As with all good rom-coms, I’d like to take up a semipermanent residence inside the confines of this movie. An inviting, revisitable world is a rare commodity, as the creators of most superhero franchises would love to tell you about.

There is, for the curious, a second Bridget Jones timeline currently in existence. After the generally skippable Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Fielding wrote a third novel that bears no relation to Bridget Jones’s Baby. Instead of splitting up after 10 years, as they do in the movie, Bridget and Mark Darcy got married; instead of living happily ever after, as they do in the movie, Mr. Darcy — I’m really sorry to do this — dies. The rest of the book is about a bereft, but still fundamentally optimistic, Bridget trying to move forward.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy is a more legitimate Bridget, probably, and also an earnest engagement with the question — what happens after the happy ending? — that plagues both sequels and life. It is also, in this universe, proof that authenticity sucks. Bridget Jones’s Baby might be easy, or even unmemorable, but I suspect it is the movie that Bridget herself would write. There are different ways to be yourself, it turns out.