Bridget Jones's Diary (2001)

Bridget Jones's Diary appears on a fair number of lists of Christmas and New Year's movies, usually with the caveat that most of the movie doesn't take place on the holiday, which is probably why we glossed over it for as long as we did. But now that we're exploring less restrictive definitions of "Christmas movie," I thought it was time to give this a watch, which led to a couple surprising revelations. First, while only a fraction of the movie is set over the holidays, this would have applied under even our stricter criteria, as its thematic use of those celebrations (particularly New Year's) permeates the entire film. But second and more important is that this movie absolutely fucking rules.

I'll be honest - I hadn't expected that. I'm not sure why I assumed it wouldn't, but I suspect it has something to do with the trailer (I just looked it up on YouTube, and it certainly isn't doing the movie any favors). But the film itself is hilarious, with fantastic performances from stars Renée Zellweger, Colin Firth, and Hugh Grant. More importantly, the tone and style are intricately crafted to balance larger-than-life comedy with just enough realism remaining to mine the absurdity of the situations for even more laughs and ground the emotions. It's a trick movies and shows attempt all the time, but more often than not slip too far one way or the other, descending into either cheap farce or a tonal imbalance that feels like it's failing both objectives. Bridget Jones's Diary, however, pulls it off flawlessly, resulting in a delightful experience, start to finish.

It's good to the point I found myself wondering what else director Sharon Maguire had made. It turns out the answer is "not much," which at first seems odd considering her clear talent on display here coupled with this film's stellar box office performance. Then you remember Maguire is a woman, so of course the movie industry undervalued her skill and accomplishments as a director. Par for the course there.

At any rate, if anyone reading this hasn't seen the movie, now would be a good time to duck out if you're worried about spoilers (not that they'd make a huge difference given the premise, but I still like to offer).

Bridget Jones's Diary is, of course, based on a novel which was written as a loose adaptation of Pride and Prejudice updated for the then-modern world. The movie starts with the title character, played by Zellweger, single and going to a New Year's party thrown by her mother, who's trying to set her up with a wealthy friend's son named Mark Darcy (Firth, who'd previously played Mr. Darcy in a BBC version of Pride and Prejudice). The two butt heads almost immediately, and Jones overhears him telling his mother in no uncertain terms what he thinks of Bridget, leading her to commit to a number of New Year's Resolutions intended to avoid being single the following year. She also starts keeping the titular diary.

Things start looking up when her flirtations with her boss, Daniel (Hugh Grant), turn to romance, though another aspect of her life is simultaneously complicated when her parents split up. Over the weeks and months that follow, she encounters Mark again, sometimes with Daniel in tow, and quickly learns the two have a history. Daniel tells her that Mark had an affair with his fiancé, though we'll learn later he's reversing their roles (and further it was Mark's wife, a fact that ended his marriage).

That reveal won't get dropped until the end of the movie, but we'll learn Daniel's a long way from faithful before then when Bridget finds him with another woman, an American he becomes engaged to. Rather than stay at her job, she quits and starts working as a television reporter.

Her awkward nature is at once a liability and an advantage in her new job - she certainly gets attention, though she struggles to be taken seriously. When an assignment to get a quote seemingly doesn't pan out, she's rescued by Mark, who randomly finds her in a convenience store. It turns out he's representing the couple Jones was supposed to speak to, and he arranges an interview, which helps her career immensely.

While still not a couple, the two clearly develop a mutual attraction. At one point, Mark tells her that he likes her just as she is, a statement that resonates with her (more on this when we get to theme). He's at her birthday when Daniel, drunk, arrives and asks Bridget to take him back. Mark winds up challenging him to a fight, and the resulting brawl is... well... I couldn't begin to do it justice. Just grade-A physical comedy.

Mark wins, but Bridget - still believing Daniel was the injured party from their old rivalry - tells him off. Daniel asks Bridget to give their relationship another shot, but by now she has too much self-respect.

On Christmas, she finds herself at Mark's family's holiday party, where his father announces his engagement to Natasha, a woman he's been seeing throughout the film (I didn't mention her earlier because aside from being a bit snobbish and ambitious, the movie never really gives her much personality). Bridget makes a fool of herself by objecting publicly, then runs off.

A week later, it's New Year's again, and Mark shows up at her apartment to tell her he's no longer with Natasha and in fact loves Bridget. There's a pretty genius misdirect around Mark reading a few passages from the diary that ends with Bridget chasing him down to street to win him back, only to find she hadn't lost him - he was, in fact, just buying her a new diary symbolizing a fresh start.

It's a clever gag to end on, as well as summing up the movie's story and theme succinctly. This is ultimately a movie about new starts that dismisses superficial resolutions as wrongheaded. Over the course of the film, Bridget learns that she needs someone who will love her as she is, and more importantly that she needs to learn to love herself. Love is not meant to be conditional, so attempts to change trivial details - such as losing weight, changing what she wears, or the like - won't lead her to happiness. She needs to grow as a person, not change who that person is.

The holidays, New Year's in particular, functions as a manifestation of both the opportunity to grow and the pressure to change. At the beginning of the movie, Bridget views it as a chance to change who she is; by the end, she understands she's already good enough - instead it becomes her chance at a new beginning. If that weren't already apparent, the movie spells it out by literally crossing out the words, "The End" and replacing them with "The Beginning," itself a representation of the eternal cycle of the old year turning into the new.

All of this, of course, is part of a very long tradition of romantic comedies using the holidays in a similar context. Bridget's dash down the street to catch the man she loves resembles similar moments in countless classic comedies (The Apartment and When Harry Met Sally spring to mind), though here it's part farce and part homage.

The movie walks that line throughout, in fact, working both as parody and simply as a particularly funny installment of its genre. At the same time, it feels like a Jane Austen movie, thanks to its bright colors and meticulous shot composition.

That's not to say everything here aged well. The screenplay is partially credited to Richard Curtis, which at once tells you it's going to be funny but also a bit fatphobic (this was just a few years before Love Actually, after all). Likewise, one of Jones's friends is gay, and - while I'm sure the character was created with the best intentions - he comes off as stereotypically two-dimensional, a common issue with LGBTQ+ representation at the time. I also felt like the two rival love interests - the woman Daniel's having an affair with and Mark's girlfriend - are underdeveloped and default to antagonists in a way that's slightly misogynistic. This is a common issue with women characters written by men around the time (probably most times, come to think of it).

So it's not perfect, but it's an intelligent, hilarious movie with great performances, fantastic direction, and (though I didn't get around to mentioning it) some extremely clever editing. This one's worth checking out, and I'm feeling more than a little embarrassed it took me twenty-two years to get around to watching it.