It’s always nice to catch up with a beloved wanton sex goddess from your past.
And the first time you see Renée Zellweger back on screen as the titular character in Bridget Jones’s Baby, yes, it elicits an instant, visceral reaction from the audience. That’s because, it turns out, it’s a pleasure to see her, too.
An incorrigible amount of press has redirected an actually interesting conversation—Is a sequel to a franchise made 12 years later a good idea?—to a sexist and valueless one about one of our most respected and talented actresses of the last 20 years’ looks. It’s missing the point, in more ways than one.
Bridget Jones’s Baby not only marks Zellweger’s return to a role that she hasn’t played in more than a decade, but her return to acting after a six-year break (and return to the practice of starring in films we actually want to see for the first time since, honestly, Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason in 2004). Watching her, you’re instantly reminded of the star’s on-screen appeal.
That carefully studied British accent is back—Zellweger famously underwent Olympian training to master the dialect, and never broke it throughout the four-month Bridget Jones’s Baby shoot. When we re-meet our heroine, the raspy English lilt is narrating her diary as, in a callback to the original 2001 film, Bridget is blowing out a birthday candle alone in her apartment as Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” blares in the background.
The role, somehow, still fits Zellweger like a glove, allowing her to blend her natural gawkiness with a little bit of fearless bawdiness. But the remarkable thing here is that, as we get up to speed on Bridget’s life, we see that she has become rather poised.
In the world of franchises and the commercial mandate to “give the people what they want,” it seems almost daring to bring back the character believably evolved—Bridget is now a successful TV news producer, a svelte, healthy weight, and unconcerned with romantic foibles—rather than lazily restart her again at zero.
More, for all the sexist distraction surrounding Zellweger’s appearance, missing was the championing of this film and this franchise as a major win in the conversation of gender equality, representation, and opportunity in the industry.
It’s still an egregious rarity for a film featuring female protagonists to be considered commercial enough to merit a franchise—The Hunger Games, Divergent, and Pitch Perfect stick out as rare examples—let alone for it to be a film intended for and skewed towards an almost exclusively female audience.
The Bridget Jones trilogy isn’t an action series. It’s a franchise of romantic comedies, spotlighting a flawed and complicated and—though heightened—real woman. And it is a franchise in which all three films were directed by women. Oh, also: The lead actress happens to be 47 years old.
While we wait (still) for there to be a superhero franchise starring and empowering women, here we have Bridget Jones on posters and in TV commercials, spanning 15 years of relevance. She’s not exactly saving the world, sure. But she is a rare visible icon in an industry commercially concerned with female invisibility. Yet let’s keep talking about Zellweger’s eyebrows.
In some ways—though certainly not in any of the ways it’s been rudely gossiped about and thrust confrontationally in Zellweger’s (perfectly pretty) face—it’s natural to talk about appearance in respect to a new Bridget Jones film. This is a franchise that invites us to be critical about body image in a self-aware, good-humored way, because Bridget Jones is just that about herself.
But her anxiety about her weight or aging or not wearing the right thing to the right occasion isn’t self-harming or mean-spirited, the way we inflict harm on an actress and a culture that feels the negative effects of our shaming. Bridget is insecure and trying her best and that’s why we love her. Not why we judge her.
Watching Bridget grapple with self-confidence and self-acceptance, and admirably set out to better herself though she still fumbles with the tools and conviction required to do so, is comforting because it reminds us that we’re not alone in that journey. That’s a gift that Zellweger, in playing this part, has given to us.
We’re so lucky that she’s back doing it.
That’s not to say that Bridget Jones’s Baby arrives with a painless birth. Its laborious journey to arrival spans years and multiple directors, writers, and rewriters, with Emma Thompson finally being brought on to rewrite the script (and co-star) and original Bridget Jones’s Diary helmer Sharon Maguire to direct. It takes a village, right?
What is settled on here is a story in which Bridget, having broken up with Mr. Darcy (Colin Firth) after their seeming happily ever after in Edge of Reason, is too concentrated on work to be concerned with men, transforming our wanton sex goddess into more of a reasonable homebody.
Concerned over Bridget’s sexual dry spell, her coworker Miranda (Sarah Solemani) insists she find herself a shag to get back in the swing of things, kidnapping her to a music festival where she falls into bed with a handsome stranger played by McDreamy himself, Patrick Dempsey. A week later, she reconnects with Mr. Darcy during a vulnerable moment at a christening for a mutual friend’s child, and they, too, have some nostalgic sex.
When Bridget realizes she’s pregnant, she also realizes that she isn’t sure which of the two men is the father, and the three must figure out a co-parenting dynamic that could possibly work as Bridget weathers what is hilariously referred to repeatedly as a “geriatric pregnancy” (Bridget is 43) and attempts to determine which, if either, of the two men she loves.
That so many players had a part in consummating this script is most evident during the film’s sort of meandering final act, which can’t seem to decide how to settle the paternity question in a satisfying manner, all the while lingering too long on a birthing sequence that doesn’t manage to be any fresher than the hundreds of film birthing sequences before it.
In a way, too, it’s interesting to embark on this storyline in which there is no real truly satisfying conclusion.
Bridget’s other longtime paramour Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) is both eschewed from the plot and left open for a return in future sequels through a plot device we won’t spoil here, meaning that Mr. Darcy is the lone legacy love of Bridget’s life vying for her heart here, boasting a history you root for in a Ross-and-Rachel kind of way as far as paternity goes.
But Patrick Dempsey’s Jack isn’t a cad who abuses Bridget’s infatuation the way that Cleaver did. Rather than simply replace Hugh Grant with a Hugh Grant-ish actor and character, the film quite cleverly introduces Jack as the perfect guy: kind, charming, successful, and truly in love with Bridget. History be damned, you don’t want to root against him either.
It’s all very high concept, in the way that romantic comedies should be, but there’s a fresh element of realism here that invigorates the genre. This is a romantic comedy for adults, starring adults as characters with adult concerns and problems.
These aren’t twentysomethings harping about their anxieties over settling down as they fall in love over a series of meet-cutes and pratfalls. These are characters who are already settled down, and wondering how love and parenthood will upend their lives as they approach middle age…over a series of meet-cutes and pratfalls.
We’re not reinventing the wheel here. But the wheel is altered a bit, making for a different kind of ride. As added bonuses, we have Emma Thompson in the car—delighting the way you expect Emma Thompson to in a supporting role as Bridget’s doctor—as well as a comically insightful indictment about the future of journalism as a bit of a side plot.
In all, I expect the run of Bridget Jones’s Baby to be rather unremarkable: likely to receive polite reviews, likely to earn a moderately successful box-office haul. But its existence actually is remarkable in ways that have been buried underneath a trash pile of cultural debate that exposes our worst tendencies as entertainment consumers and armchair critics.
Bridget Jones has grown up. We owe it to ourselves to grow up along with her.