There’s an unassuming charm to 2001’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” one that turned a relatively average rom-com into one of the most beloved chick flicks of the past decade. Sure, the jokes were broad, the set-ups were obvious and the love scenes were schmaltzy, but there was a purity to its lovesick convictions. Based on Helen Fielding’s bestselling novel of the same name, inspired loosely by Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” it was anchored with love and care by Renee Zellweger’s winning, Oscar-nominated lead performance and Sharon Maguire’s gently assured direction. Throw some handsomely charming gentlemen into the mix — Colin Firth and Hugh Grant, to be precise — and you have yourself one of the most popular date movies of the past decade.
That same success wasn’t found in 2004’s “Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason,” a clumsy, clunky and annoyingly cloying retreat that replaced the original’s modest humor for strained slapstick goofiness. Maguire’s sensitive touch was lost by her replacement, Beeban Kidron (“To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar”), and the spark didn’t ignite. It felt inauthentic where the original was unabashedly genuine in its sugar-coated sweetness.
That’s why it was safe to enter “Bridget Jones’s Baby,” the third inclusion to the comedy series, rather hesitant at best. It’s been 12 years since the previous chapter, one lead is missing and the other two are well-established Oscar winners now. The late-minute second sequel looked like a recipe for money-grabbing laziness, even with Maguire’s return to the director’s chair. However, for a series defined by predictable on-screen circumstances, the “Bridget Jones” franchise has always left room for surprises, and this new addition is no exception. And in a year when sequels have faced a rough time at the box office, “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is a warm, friendly followup that serves as a reminder of what made the original such a smash success.
On her 43rd birthday, Bridget Jones (Zellweger) is once again alone. Her relationship with Mark Darcy (Firth) fell apart some years back, and Daniel Cleaver (Grant) is no longer in the picture due to a freak accident. His passing is given all the sensitivity of Charlie Sheen’s exit from “Two and a Half Men.” Her friends now have children, her television news job is on the line due to management trying to appeal to a younger, hipper audience, and she hasn’t been laid in months. That’s why Bridget’s news anchor friend Miranda (Sarah Solemani) decides to treat her with a trip to the Glastonbury music festival, where she meets Jack (Patrick Dempsey), a chiseled-jawed, smooth-talking American, who quickly charms Bridget into a one-night-stand.
A few days later, in traditional comedy fashion, Bridget and Mark are reunited through mutual acquaintances and, sure enough, also wind up spending a night together. But what turned out to be a couple nights of unforeseen events quickly turns into nine months of consequences when Bridget discovers she’s pregnant and, of course, cannot determine which gentlemen is the real daddy. Instead of picking between the two, though, she trails them both along for the ride — resulting in a variety of wacky paternal situations.
Such sitcom-level contrivances are familiar to the “Bridget Jones” films, and “Bridget Jones’s Baby” provides the corniness by the bucketful. There’s a plentiful barrage of cheeky humor, cutesy situations and awkward moments in this new sequel, but where ‘The Edge of Reason’ felt pandering and grating, this third film is often charming. The writing is stronger, courtesy of Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson, the latter of whom also brings a welcome presence on-screen as Bridget’s wryly funny doctor, and though Maguire’s touch is not quite as deft, its nevertheless tenderly felt. The film is lighthearted without becoming overly goofy, and it doesn’t sacrifice character growth for cheap gags quite as much as its predecessor.
Additionally, Bridget is loveable and relatable again, not nearly as clutzy or ditzy as she was in the previous film, and Zellweger still fits into this role like a well-worn warm glove. Her British accent is a little more faint this time, but still polished, and she’s as accessible and appealing as ever in the role she helped define — even when the plot makes her a little too absent-minded. This is what ultimately made the original film so endearing, and it’s the same case here. The strength of Zellweger’s titular character is ultimately what makes the material sink or swim, and even though a decade has passed, the actress never misses a beat. Beyond the stronger material and more level-headed approach, she’s ultimately what makes this “Bridget Jones” work, and it’s great to see the star in her element again.
Grant’s absence is felt, but Dempsey is a fitting replacement. His naturally charismatic on-screen presence makes it easy to see why Bridget would swoon for him so easily, and his game face attitude to the material only becomes more adorable as the film continues. And though Firth looks slightly more uncomfortable this time, his stilted demeanour works well against Dempsey’s looseness.
Fans should have no problem accepting ‘Baby’ into their hearts, just like they did with the first film and, unfortunately, maybe even the second one too. “Bridget Jones’s Baby” is not a game-changer, but that’s not what it sets out to be. It’s a goodnatured, accessible, persistently endearing matinee, and sometimes it’s nice to be won over by simple sincerity and commercial likeability. Bridget Jones is finally given a respectable sequel. It was rather overdue, but better late than never. [B-]