After the disaster that was 2004's Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason, Bridget's hot mess of a life lands safely back in the spry hands of Sharon Maguire. Maguire, reportedly the model for Bridget's fizzy friend Shazzer, directs this new sequel with the same antic flair she brought to Bridget Jones's Diary when the novel-based franchise began in 2001. That film earned many detractors on many grounds, and Bridget Jones's Baby will too. I love both movies for the generous, candid, willfully vulgar spirit with which they take on the often inhospitable world many women face today.
We find Bridget celebrating her 43rd birthday, alone again — and with child. How this came to be takes up almost the first hour of Bridget Jones's Baby. Not a bad thing, since it makes room in a putative romantic comedy for some of the funniest newsroom sendup scenes I've seen since Broadcast News. Now a fully fledged producer who quite literally has the ear of her anchor (a very good Sarah Solemani), Bridget believes she has her professional life sorted. In comes a ridiculously young and brash new boss (Kate O'Flynn), who brings in her own army of man-bunned young blades with a view to sinking all content into the gutter for ratings and clicks. The dialogue, written by Bridget novelist Helen Fielding with Sacha Baron Cohen regular Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson, is at once scabrously sexed up and blistering about the bottom-feeding depths to which journalism has sunk.
Back to Bridget, who admittedly is trapped in one of the hoariest premises in the romantic comedy playbook: She doesn't know which of the two men she recently had impulse sex with is the father, and never mind that this could be settled with a quick scrape of DNA. Could it be granite-jawed Jack (Patrick Dempsey, a good sport but struggling to fill the caddish shoes of a departed Hugh Grant), the algorithm-mad relationship guru who gallantly plucked her out of a sea of mud at a rock festival and one thing led to another? Or maybe it's our old friend Darcy (Colin Firth), who still sounds as if he's handing Bridget a detention every time he utters her name through clenched teeth? Darcy and Bridget didn't work out, and at the outset he appears to have joined the ranks of the Smug Married. He remains a stiff, but not enough of one to resist a night of unplanned lust with Bridget. When she spills the beans about her pregnancy, Jack brings too many gifts. Darcy winces and says, "How can I help?"
So you could say that Bridget keeps living, then unpicking, the Pride and Prejudice dream as her bond with the elusive Darcy ebbs and flows along with her own desire to live on her own terms. To my mind, that whole Jane Austen thing was never more than a weak hook in the Bridget story. And feminists who wrote Bridget off as a helpless, man-obsessed ditz got it wrong then, as they're likely to now. What Bridget Jones's Diary got right for women in their 30s is the tricky, sometimes painful, often confused junction where feminism rubs up against the legitimate desire to find love that holds. What Bridget Jones's Baby gets hilariously, angrily right is the unease of achieving single women in early middle age who are being told that they're too old for a world that forces them to live like teenagers. In her 40s, Bridget is a different kind of singleton than she was 10 years earlier. She's being pushed out at work, and as her no-nonsense obstetrician (Emma Thompson, in full headmistress throttle) never fails to remind her, she's a "geriatric mother." Her posse of lunatic friends has gotten lives and retreated to the movie's back burner. She's looking at a lonely future.
Yet Bridget insists on a sex life, even when it's far from the supportive partnership she had in mind. She can be a big kid at work, but she values professional integrity above dignity. Hanging on to the klutzy indomitability that got her through earlier chapters, Bridget will rap a happy birthday to herself when no one else is around to sing to her, dance Gangnam style in fairy wings at a christening, and call time on two guys so busy feuding over parental rights, they've forgotten that she's the one carrying to term. And let me say here that Zellweger holds up beautifully, not just because she is surrounded by a flock of terrific supporting acts, among them the great Joanna Scanlan (so moving as Charles' Dickens' neglected wife in The Invisible Woman) as a usefully conniving makeup artist, and Sally Phillips as the unflaggingly high-spirited Shazzer. Zellweger has precision comic timing, her British accent is close to flawless, and she's having a great time.
That's the whole point of Bridget, who seizes life as she finds it, makes lemonade, and brings everyone else on board — even her mum, the Tory. I'll wager that in the sequel yet to come, Bridget will renegotiate Brexit, with Darcy as her legal eagle.