Sign up for our free newsletter

Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.

If Helen Fielding’s best-selling 1996 novel had not been adapted for the screen, I doubt that I would ever have chosen to read Bridget Jones’s Diary. But Fielding’s participation as executive producer and co-screenwriter made familiarity with her book a prerequisite for reviewing the movie. So I purchased a copy of the paperback edition—adorned with what appear to be an inflatable sex doll’s bulging eyes and fellatio-poised mouth—and settled in for what the USA Today cover blurb touts as a “screamingly funny!” experience.

Fielding’s novel takes the form of Bridget’s daybook: 12 months of the English protagonist’s diary jottings prefaced by two pages of New Year’s resolutions. Each day’s entry begins with a record of Bridget’s current weight and alcohol, cigarette, and calorie consumptions. The episodic plotline emerging from these pages involves the 32-year-old single woman’s pursuit of men, addictions to food and other substances, relationships with friends and family, and attempts at self-improvement. By turns sarcastic, self-deprecating, vindictive, and pitiful, the diary presumably has something to say about the plight of contemporary unmarried women.

By the end of the January chapter, I’d grown weary of Bridget’s whiny, self-absorbed voice. By mid-February, I found turning the pages as effortful as bench-pressing 150 pounds.

Suspecting that my resistance to the novel was perhaps a guy thing, I consulted a friend, a discriminating reader of contemporary fiction who enjoyed the book, and asked her to enlighten me. She explained that she viewed it as a frothy satire of a particular type of lovelorn, post-feminist woman and pointed out that, just as the delightful movie Clueless was freely based on Jane Austen’s Emma, Fielding’s novel uses Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as a template. (Some of the parallels, which I had cloddishly overlooked, include a male character named Darcy and the heroine’s frivolous mother.)

Armed with this information, I dutifully returned to the book, but, at the end of the March chapter, I deemed it unreadable. I can think of any number of memorable novels with shallow female protagonists—Emma, Madame Bovary, The Group—whose authors took pains to create some empathy for their characters and to provide social contexts to explain their limitations. But Bridget is so relentlessly obtuse, bitter, envious, and self-centered that her misery seems fully deserved. I have never met a woman as oblivious to anything beyond herself as Fielding’s exasperating brainchild.

Seeking another opinion, I e-mailed the BBC Radio 3 presenter who interviewed me in London earlier this month. Within an hour, she fired back the following reply: “I HATE BRIDGET JONES. It’s not a guy thing; it’s a person with a brain and an ounce of respect for women thing. Fucking bullshit. Can’t tell you how much it makes me angry. All that ‘what knickers shall I wear to get shagged’ crap. Women do NOT count calories/fags/drinks every day, and that victim/ditsy rubbish MAKES MY BLOOD BOIL. Fucking pan it for all our sakes. It puts women back at least 50 FUCKING YEARS.” Feeling exonerated,

I hurriedly skimmed the rest of the novel in preparation for viewing the film.

Even fans of Fielding’s book are likely to be disappointed by director Sharon Maguire’s slapdash screen adaptation, her feature debut. Admittedly, transforming Bridget’s ramblings into a dramatic narrative poses a daunting challenge, a task that defeats screenwriters Fielding, Andrew Davies, and Richard Curtis. Bridget Jones’s Diary the movie amounts to little more than a series of scrappy vignettes populated by a collection of characters, many of whom are introduced only to be left undeveloped and, in some cases, abandoned. Just a few shards remain of the novel’s contrapuntal subplot involving Bridget’s mother’s adulterous autumnal fling, to the distress of her hapless husband.

The success of this filmed journal rests heavily on the shoulders of the actress cast as the omnipresent diarist. Renée Zellweger, I regret to report, isn’t up to the job. The offbeat sparkle that marked her reputation-making performances in Jerry Maguire and The Whole Wide World has been dimmed by the requirements of sustaining an English accent and gaining 20 pounds to portray the weight-conscious Bridget. Zellweger’s slitty eyes have been further compressed by her newly rounded countenance, leaving a bee-stung Gloria Grahame mouth as her sole expressive feature. Uncharacteristically gauche and unfocused, the actress is unable to forge a coherent character, a failure for which she deserves only partial blame.

As written, Bridget has no existence apart from her insecurity, resentment, and romantic frustration. Although she is employed as a publishing-company publicist, her activities largely consist of wearing unflattering miniskirts and sending moonstruck interoffice e-mails to her rakish boss, Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). (She fumbles a press-conference introduction, her only depicted professional duty, embarrassing herself and everyone in earshot.) Determined to change jobs after a futile affair with Daniel, she’s hired as a television reporter but botches her first story by inadvertently exposing her bare bottom to the camera. Even Bridget’s attempt to host a dinner party merely demonstrates her inability to prepare an edible meal.

The only difference between Grant’s performance as a polished cad and his usual role as a boyish charmer is that his hair looks greasy rather than fluffy and his complexion appears in need of a brisk scrubbing. Otherwise, he trots out his usual coy, robotically predictable mannerisms. As Darcy, the barrister whom Bridget initially mocks, Colin Firth, who played Mr. Darcy in the English television-miniseries adaptation of Pride and Prejudice, is required to do little more than display his square-jawed handsomeness and function as a hunk ex machina to facilitate the movie’s hackneyed happy ending. Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones make what little they can of their truncated roles as Bridget’s parents. Sally Phillips, Shirley Henderson, and James Callis share the thankless assignment of being Bridget’s confidantes. The trio’s raison d’être is to serve as her personal cheering section, perpetually on call to sympathize with her kvetching and buoy her flagging spirits.

With her background in documentary filmmaking, Maguire lacks the skills to stage and pace dramatic sequences, alternating stiff compositions with pointlessly distracting raked camera angles. Stuart Dryburgh’s muzzy, garish camerawork does little to obscure Maguire’s directorial shortcomings, and the soundtrack heavy-handedly uses pop chestnuts—Bridget drunkenly bellowing “All by Myself”; “Me and Mrs. Jones” underscoring her mother’s infidelity—to hammer home obvious plot points.

If the novel’s vast fan club of female readers supports the movie, it’s bound to be a commercial success. But the Bridget Jones phenomenon bewilders me. I can’t fathom why so many otherwise sensible women find the character endearing. She’s bereft of the qualities that make human beings admirable—independence, talent, self-control, compassion, poise, insight, confidence, even culinary skill. (Imagine how Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Myrna Loy, and other spunky actresses would have reacted had they been offered such a mortifying role.) It’s discouraging, even alarming, to find that Bridget has emerged as a popular icon in an era presumably enlightened by feminism. Although Bridget Jones’s Diary was

created and directed by females, its sole evidence of distaff empowerment is the sobering demonstration that women no longer require men to demean their gender. CP