I was frightened to see Bridget Jones’s Baby. Unlike the Men of the Internet, this fear was not based on the idea that Renée Zellweger’s face might remind me of my own looming mortality and subsequently the utter pointlessness of my own tragic life. I was afraid because I adore the entire Bridget Jones canon so deeply that it is almost embarrassing (in the way that blindly earnest adoration of anything is), and I could not fathom that a film that sees a relatively put-together Bridget grinding at a music festival and typing her diary on an iPad while trying to figure out which of two men (Colin Firth’s sexily frigid Mark Darcy or Patrick Dempsey’s woo-woo tech billionaire Jack Qwant) impregnated her could possibly live up to its near-flawless predecessors. As I settled into my seat on Tuesday, I assumed I’d just signed up for two hours of depressing hackery. Reader, I was v. v. wrong.
I was 9 years old and entirely too young to read Bridget Jones’s Diary when it was first published, but I stole it off my mom’s bedside table anyway, and thank god. Bridget’s wry, self-deprecating evaluations of herself and the world single-handedly demonstrated to my young, perpetually anxious self that (1) women’s voices mattered; (2) women could talk about “female” things unencumbered and unabashedly, even hilariously; (3) adults did not remotely have their shit together, even when they appeared to; and (4) that that was fine, that we’d all be all right just the way we were. Devouring Bridget Jones’s Diary over the years in various bathtubs, I was reminded that my own romantic humiliations and angst about my appearance were not only normal, but things I could point and laugh at. After all, what else is there to do when presented with deranged, funny sentences like, “Spent the weekend struggling to remain disdainfully buoyant after the Daniel fuckwittage debacle. I kept saying the words ‘Self-respect’ and ‘Huh’ over and over till I was dizzy, trying to barrage out, ‘But I lurrrve him.’ Smoking was v. bad.” Fielding’s unflinchingly ridiculous and dryly witty prose was almost exclusively responsible for turning me into the sort of unflinchingly ridiculous person who could laugh at myself (and for making me feel like I, too, could be a writer).
All of this is to explain why, when I sat down to watch the third installment in the franchise — which dropped out of the sky a nostalgia-exploiting 12 years after the second film and 15 after the first; was not based on any of Fielding’s books (the third novel, Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy, saw Mark Darcy’s character killed off, so its excision from the movie franchise was actually a gift); appeared to feature a Bridget who was sleek and self-actualized yet simultaneously stuck in a soap opera–worthy pickle; and was mired in development issues for what felt like eternity — I was prepared to hate it. And, for at least an hour, I sort of did.
Here are some of the things Bridget Jones does in the first hour of Bridget Jones’s Baby, all of which appear to strain toward some movie executive’s concept of “Millennial” but never actually reach it: She goes to a Glastonbury-esque music fest and raves with her coworker (a fantastic Sarah Solemani), who rolls around the grass inside a plastic bubble. She meets Ed Sheeran (... Ed Sheeran), who inexplicably performs not one but two songs. She dances to “Gangnam Style” (!) at a christening. She makes multiple jokes about hipsters having beards. She FaceTimes with her mom (Gemma Jones), who — imagine it, if you can — does not understand how FaceTime works. She watches Mark Darcy represent a Pussy Riot–esque band who scream “Punani!” on live television.
Most of these situations end with Bridget charmingly embarrassing herself in some way: falling face-first into a puddle of mud, telling Sheeran that she recognizes him as the barista from her local Starbucks, revealing to Mark Darcy that she does not know where the Gangnam District is, getting trapped at the Pussy Riot–esque rally and leaving Mark to helplessly defend the women’s cause. But at first glance, it all still feels a little cheap and deferential, like cowriters Fielding, Emma Thompson, and Dan Mazer didn’t trust their audience to stay tuned without kowtows to “current” (a.k.a. 2010) pop culture.
But the film saves itself in the second hour by calling itself out for everything I’ve just described. It swoops in and rescues itself, just like Bridget Jones herself always did, with self-awareness. One of the ways the film pokes fun at its premise is by having each of its beloved characters, in some form or another, perilously stuck between the old and the new. The structure, too, mimics this dilemma in that it opens with a funeral, briefly brings Bridget and Mark back together at a christening, and ends with a wedding (I won’t tell you whose). Bridget wonders aloud (via voice-over that accompanies fumbling typing on an iPad) whether she should run off with the shiny American rich boy who’s come up with an infallible algorithm to predict romantic compatibility, or run back to the stodgy lawyer in a courtroom wig. She bends over backward trying to impress her new boss at Hard News, a disaffected #millennial who threatens to replace Bridget’s hard-hitting interviews with photos of a kitten dressed like Hitler. She cheerfully refers to herself as “the last barren husk in London,” then gets knocked up and told (by Thompson, perfectly cast as Bridget’s gynecologist) that she’s having a “geriatric pregnancy.” Bridget’s mother runs for local office under this platform: “If you love family and you love values, you’ll love Pamela Jones for family values”; later, Bridget tells her, “If you don’t change the way you look at things, you’re going to be left behind.” I’d imagine that very same anxiety plagued the filmmakers, and what a clever idea to address it outright.
As for the “sleeker” Bridget, I didn’t have to worry that, along with those few pounds she’d been so obsessed by, Bridget would lose her self-effacing streak or her relatability (how dumb and regressive was that of me in the first place?). After taking a multiple-year break from Hollywood, Zellweger is just as warm and weird and appealing as she was back in 2001, albeit imbued with a new sense of serenity and self-confidence. And of course Bridget’s changed in 12 years; as she herself points out in a typically spontaneous tirade to her younger boss, we’ve all been changing too, unironically posting photos of our lunches on Instagram and ironically growing beards. (These are legitimate critiques, if not a few years late.) It’s actually pretty lovely to watch Bridget finally feel comfortable enough with her body and herself to wear an all-white ensemble to a muddy field. It’s equally lovely to watch her face-plant in it.
Bridget Jones’s Baby’s script is sharper and funnier than I expected it to be, considering its years spent in limbo. You can almost see Fielding and Thompson peeking out from behind the page, guffawing. There’s a running gag throughout the film about Bridget’s “dolphin” condoms, i.e., vegan and animal-friendly prophylactics that, apparently, do not work whatsoever. Thompson gets a lot of the best lines, like when she describes her own husband’s reaction to watching her give birth as “watching his favorite pub burn down.” A scene at the end of the film sees Mark and Jack carrying Bridget to the hospital, one hoisting her up beneath the arms and the other struggling to hold on to her legs, only to get lodged inside the ER’s revolving door. None of it is revolutionary comedy, but the film has managed to hold tight to the tongue-in-cheek British sensibility that made the first two films (OK, fine, the first film) so delightful.
Late in Bridget Jones’s Baby, as Bridget’s final decision looms large, there’s a brief montage of clips from the first film: Bridget and Mark meeting at the infamous Christmas party, Bridget running toward Mark in her underwear in the snowy streets of London, Mark telling Bridget he loves her “just the way she is.” Having watched the film somewhat grumpily until that point, I was surprised to find myself crying a little bit, and to look to my left and right and see that my seatmates were, too. It was a bit of an obvious trick, pandering to the series’s older fans just as Sheeran’s singing was aimed at its all-too-important new audience. But the fact that the filmmakers and actors were willing to lay themselves so bare, to so openly address the sheer difficulty of straddling a 12-year gap, completely dismantled any of my remaining cynicism about the whole thing. Bridget Jones’s Baby is confused, messy, a little all over the place, and stuck between two worlds, but it’s disarmingly self-aware and charming about it all. It hopes and expects that we’ll love it despite these flaws, and it’s right. Sounds like somebody we know.