To paraphrase Jane Austen, it is a truth universally acknowledged that a romantic comedy in want of a sequel will find some reason to split up the couple around which it’s centered. Is it contrived? Yes. Do jokes fall flat? Sure. Can the ending be guessed from moment one? Of course. The most surprising thing about Bridget Jones’s Baby has nothing to do with the perennial singleton’s offspring or the tropes of romantic comedies. What’s surprising is that, despite all the contrivances and stale conventions, this movie’s not half bad, and occasionally better than that.
There’s a pretty simple reason. The return of Bridget Jones, 15 years after she first appeared on screen, means the return of Renee Zellweger, hallelujah. There’s been a lot of unnecessary press about her in recent weeks, and it will be a total shame if it drowns out what really matters about having this actor back on-screen. In her heyday, Zellweger was a somewhat divisive figure, a love-her-or-hate-her kind of performer (this writer falls on the former side). Despite this, her onscreen vulnerability, natural charm, and undeniable skills racked up awards and nominations left and right — including an Oscar nomination for Bridget Jones’s Diary, the first film in the trilogy that Baby will ostensibly conclude.
She got that nomination for a reason. While this performance almost certainly won’t generate that kind of buzz, Zellweger is once again excellent, with that aforementioned vulnerability present in full force. With the help of director Sharon Maguire (returning from the first film), the Oscar winner brings back all of Bridget’s quirks and fumbles while lending her a wry, grown-up, and slightly tired air that adds layers to a film that probably doesn’t really need or deserve them.
It’s a paint-by-numbers affair: Bridget starts this film as she did the first, listening to Celine Dion’s “All By Myself” with a forlorn look on her face. Despite getting the guy (Mark Darcy, played by the always-welcome Colin Firth) at the end of the first movie, as well as at the end of the sour cash-grab that was Bridget Jones: the Edge of Reason (2004), Jones is alone again, much to absolutely no one’s surprise. However, she makes a change straightaway, trading Celine for House of Pain (a winning opening that earns quite a lot of goodwill) and opting to forget all those old goals in favor of a life spent doing whatever (and whoever) she wants. Before you can say “it’s in the title,” Bridget’s pregnant, and she’s not sure which handsome rich guy (Firth and Patrick Dempsey, equal parts winning and whiny) is the father.
It all plays out from there pretty much as one would expect, with a few exceptions. First, it’s impossible not to be a little surprised when Zellweger’s in top form, as she is here. At times you expect a punchline, and instead get pathos; the reverse is true just as often. She’s not alone in elevating the material. Firth continues to play all manner of Misters Darcy like no one else can, Sarah Solemani acts as a winning foil to Bridget as her friend/coworker Miranda, and Emma Thompson steals pretty much every scene she’s in as Bridget’s obstetrician. Thompson’s also on hand for nearly all the film’s most affecting moments as well, and her scenes one-on-one with Zellweger hint at how interesting a story about Bridget Jones, her baby, and no father at all could be.
That’s a sense the film carries as a whole. At times, the screenplay (by Bridget Jones’s Diary novelist Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer, and Thompson herself) seems to drag its feet about finally getting back to the love triangle around which it’s centered. It’s at its best and most energetic when Bridget deals with how the pregnancy might render her obsolete to the millenials in management at her office, when she confronts the realities of having a person baking inside of her, when she’s letting her father in on what’s going on (Jim Broadbent, reliably wonderful), or when her many quirks finally wind up biting her in the ass in the rain. Bridget Jones’s Baby delivers on the smooshy stuff, to be sure — the screening attended for this review was filled with cheers, audible gasps, and awws at the required beats — but it’s the stuff in between that really delivers.
Perhaps that’s not a surprise, after all. Often one sees films like Bridget Jones’s Baby because it offers a chance to get empathetically wrapped up in someone else’s story for a bit, to feel the heartbreak and warmth and nervousness and fear and joy and bewilderment that accompany the process of falling in love. But the mechanics of a romantic comedy don’t make it great. It’s up to the characters — and thus the performers, writers, and directors — to turn something flat into something lovely. Bridget Jones’s Baby probably won’t make any year-end lists, nor should it. But in a few years, when it shows up on TBS, plenty of people will stop changing the channel and fall back in love for a bit. Bridget Jones is an odd but ordinary woman, and this is an odd but ordinary film. That doesn’t make her (or it) any less lovable, just as they are.