Girl, Afraid

Renée Zellweger nervously Joneses for romance

Keep a diary and one day it'll keep you," said Mae West, and although the sentiment rings true, it does little to explain the mystery of why Helen Fielding's sliver of literary history managed to keep anyone. Fluffy, shrill and approximately as deep as Cosmo, the book somehow hit home for a lot of people, so, naturally, we now have the movie version of Bridget Jones's Diary. Like the mock journal on which it is based, the project means well, says nothing and provokes as many easy grimaces as forced smiles.

If it weren't focusing so much energy on pollinating foreign markets with cute British slang (say, "Fancy fannying around with a sodding wanker in the loo?" -- or, on second thought, don't), it might be easier to get into this one, but fledgling feature director Sharon Maguire pours so much coy self-awareness into her work that it feels throughout like some in-joke to which we are never quite privy. Although it is, in essence, a gender reversal of Nick Hornby's similarly themed High Fidelity (slouchy, depressed thirtysomething makes lists, checks twice, finds out who's naughty/nice), that book (and Stephen Frears' Americanized film adaptation) felt as much like an unpredictable crapshoot as life itself. No such luck here; Bridget Jones is far too smug and insular for that.

Not that Renée Zellweger's (and her management's) game bid for the plum role is wasted. With dialogue coach Barbara Berkery hovering -- seemingly -- just millimeters outside cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh's frames, Zellweger is as convincingly English as Kate Hudson is Irish in the forthcoming (and far wilier) About Adam -- which is to say she blends in for a strong turn. (It's generous of her to help out like this until the Brits can produce their own actresses.) Give or take a literary desk job or a record-store pipe dream, her character is almost exactly the same as John Cusack's in High Fidelity -- hopeful, despondent, sarcastic -- but with a single glaring distinction: In matters of romance, the girl can't be bothered to try very hard. Although Zellweger does all she can to pump up the character with funny doses of thinly veiled loathing (for "singletons" such as herself but more often for "smug-marrieds"), Bridget's lack of motivation renders her merely querulous and unlikable.

It's pretty hard to get worked up over a character who's obsessed with little more than shedding pounds and being adored -- rented Anne Bancroft's Fatso lately? -- so the story weighs heavily on its supporting characters, specifically Bridget's opposing suitors, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Apparently blind, deaf, deranged and profoundly masochistic, both men come to foster a strong interest in Bridget, until eventually their competition erupts into an all-out war of bopped noses and shattered glass -- added to the narrative to spice things up onscreen.

Darcy is the good boy, modeled by Fielding after Mr. Darcy from the Jane Austen novel and/or miniseries Pride and Prejudice (a role also filled, in the latter, by Firth). A mama's boy (he wears goofy reindeer sweaters) and wounded soul, he's proud and unhappy and detached, a perfect match for Bridget, although neither of them can admit it. In fact, as he blithely insults her for drinking like a fish, smoking like a chimney and dressing like her mother ("You'll never get a boyfriend if you look like something that wandered out of Auschwitz," offers Gemma Jones as Mum), she carefully records her hatred for him in her captivating diary entries.

Much like her insecure mother (who stupidly abandons an absurdly easygoing Jim Broadbent to take up with a moronic television clown played by Patrick Barlow), Bridget is drawn (yawn) to the sly, predatory Daniel, her boss at a chic literary agency for whom she'll gladly perform acts that are "illegal in some countries." With a few more lines on his gaunt face and a much more waggish attitude than that of the goody-two-shoes initially packaged and sold to us, Grant has fun with the role, drunkenly spewing limericks about urination and making a perfect pig of himself with Bridget's consent and at her expense. Even though he precisely fits her New Year's resolution to avoid "alcoholics, workaholics, commitment-phobics, misogynists, emotional fuckwits, perverts" and the like, she's dumb, so she falls for him, and -- lucky us! -- we get to watch.

Therein lies the problem at the heart of Bridget Jones, a flaw that cannot be remedied even by capable writers Richard Curtis (The Vicar of Dibley, Four Weddings and a Funeral) and Andrew Davies (the BBC's Pride and Prejudice) or by Fielding herself: that there is simply no reason to care about a mopey, boring character who neither offers nor seeks a reason for her own existence. Emotional nonsense is funny in farce, but this story presents itself as a plausible reality, so the urge to laugh is superseded by the urge to slap everybody and command them to stop embarrassing all of humanity. No amount of cheek (or even mean-spirited jesting, as when Bridget's mother asserts more than once that the Japanese are "a cruel race") can assuage the discomfort of all this hollow cuteness covering the ugly negotiations of love.

For all that, the weirdest thing about this wispy Bridget Jones is that it attracted so many big-league players. In addition to having on the crew such luminaries as Dryburgh (who lensed The Piano), Martin Walsh (who edited Hilary and Jackie), and Rachel Fleming (who designed costumes for The Beach), the movie includes a couple of noteworthy cameos. Salman Rushdie's presence at a publisher's fête is quite amusing, if not too surprising (he enthusiastically endorsed Fielding's book), and Jeffrey Archer shows up as well.

In small roles as Bridget's compassionate friends, we also get Shirley Henderson (Wonderland), Sally Phillips (the receptionist from I'm Alan Partridge) and James Callis (TV's Jason and the Argonauts) as -- what else? -- the obligatory gay sidekick. Toss in Embeth Davidtz as a nasty American competitor for Daniel's nonexistent affections, plus a gaggle of snide couples to mock our heroine's own unexamined terror of commitment, and Bridget Jones adds up to little more than too many weddings and not nearly enough funerals.