When it comes to Asking the Critic, questions about movies that are better than the books on which they’re based rank right up there with questions about actors who are better than the junk they’re stuck in. For a long time, The Bridges of Madison County has been my favorite example of literature improved off the page. But now I’ve found a more timely example: The modest charms of Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason are a triumph of performance, production, and adaptation over the empty-calorie dither of its source material.
Millions of readers will recall that when Bridget left the hilariously neurotic world of singletons for the challenges of an ongoing relationship with the heroically stable Mark Darcy at the end of that seminal 1996 tome, Bridget Jones’s Diary, author Helen Fielding ran into trouble. Rather than alienating a core singleton audience who identified so closely with their weight-watching heroine, Fielding’s 2000 sequel punished Bridget for her happiness — how else to explain it? — by making her even ditzier and less adept in the world. On the page, insecurity, possessiveness, and jealousy nearly incapacitated our Bridge. And career advancement was rewarded with commensurate humiliation. Is there any other reason why BJ would wind up, in The Edge of Reason’s plot climax, in a Thai jail?
Bridget (Renée Zellweger, delectably back to fighting weight) is made to play the bumbler more than is good for her or us in director Beeban Kidron’s slenderizing adaptation (with a script pared of considerable unsightly fat by original screenwriters Fielding, Richard Curtis, and Andrew Davies, plus Adam Brooks). She still waffles, girlishly and indefensibly, between Mark Darcy (Colin Firth, reliable personifier of the kind of bloke all girls want to end up with) and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant, copyrighted player of the kind of cad all girls temporarily find cuter than Mark Darcy). She still spends time in that Brokedown Palace-gone-comedy prison on a false drug-smuggling charge, a singularly unfunny but structurally useful development.
The wonder is that we don’t mind the inanities of plot desperation and character stasis more. And the reason is that the movie keeps its focus on the Bridget, Mark, and Daniel we now know so familiarly, via crowdpleasers Zellweger, Firth, and Grant. Only those who refer to the book will remember the catastrophes this Edge of Reason has skirted. Everyone else will be pleasantly distracted in happy anticipation of seeing Zellweger in Bridget’s giant underpants.