Bridget Jones’s Baby is, if nothing else, a case study in how much star power can do for a movie. Otherwise a sloppy, careless mess which takes forever to get where it’s going and has no idea what to do when it gets there, Sharon Maguire’s return to the Bridget Jones franchise is still fairly watchable thanks to the charisma of its three leads.
The premise is serviceable: The lovably inept Bridget Jones (Renee Zellweger) ends a romantic dry spell by sleeping with two men—handsome internet billionaire Jack (Patrick Dempsey), who made his fortune by creating a dating site using elaborate algorithms, and old flame Mark (Colin Firth), who has recently split from his wife—within two weeks of each other. When Bridget learns she’s pregnant, she has no idea by whom, so both men come on board to assist her with the pregnancy. The guys (mildly) spar with each other and Bridget tries to sort out her feelings about them as the due date approaches, not knowing which of them she’ll end up with or if the same guy will be both a viable mate and the biological father.
In the hands of an old Hollywood pro like George Cukor or Blake Edwards—or, more recently than them, Nora Ephron—making an elegant, hilarious romantic comedy out of this material would be a walk in the park. Unfortunately, the craft exhibited by Cukor in something like The Philadelphia Story is missing in action here both visually and structurally: Director Sharon Maguire wields her camera with all the delicacy of a sledgehammer, and the script by Helen Fielding, Dan Mazer and Emma Thompson labors over some points and rushes through others. The film is way too long without fully exploring a single issue or subplot that it introduces—peripheral characters are introduced only to drop inexplicably out of the narrative, comic set-ups fail to pay off (just compare the handling of Bridget hiding the men from each other with similar material in Edwards’ far superior Micki and Maude), and the movie takes something like an hour (out of its full slog of two hours) just to get to its main premise.
Even when that premise does kick in, Baby does nothing with it (if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen almost the entirety of the conflict that plays out between Zellweger, Firth, and Dempsey). The movie takes so long to set its plot in motion that it has to begin wrapping it up almost immediately, failing to exploit even the most obvious and rudimentary possibilities of the situation. The average rerun of Three’s Company has more comic complications. There’s zero drama here, because Jones barely has anything to lose: She’s got a billionaire web mogul who wants to be with her no matter what, and a successful attorney who happens to be the love of her life. Speaking of billionaire web moguls, how come Dempsey’s allegedly internationally successful dating site looks like a cheap graphic thrown together by a kindergartner on an iPad? For that matter, why does the news show Bridget produces look equally unconvincing and tacky? What the hell is going on with a pointless subplot involving Bridget’s mom that gets introduced late in the game and affects nothing, but pads the already brutally long running time?
Ultimately questions like these don’t matter, because if you’re buying what Bridget Jones’s Baby is selling you’ll forgive all the film’s shortcomings—and there’s a lot to forgive. Even when the script does throw off a good line, Maguire often botches it in the delivery. When Emma Thompson’s character Dr. Rawlings tells a pretty funny joke cribbed from Thompson’s appearance on The Graham Norton Show alongside Robbie Williams, it’s muffled in a poorly composed shot that draws the viewer’s attention elsewhere. The line was funnier and punchier on the talk show where it originated. In all, Maguire’s directorial choices are uneven at best. For the first half of the movie, for example, the characters are so unforgivingly, brightly lit they seem to be interacting on the surface of the sun, and dialogue scenes are composed in punishingly enormous alternating close-ups that give no rhythm or shape to the comedy. In numerous scenes, looped dialogue clearly doesn’t match the imagery, and right from the beginning Maguire uses music cues not to enhance or underline the drama but as a substitute for it.
Bland music cues are representational of both the laziness of Bridget Jones’s Baby and its ultimate appeal: They’re intentionally generic. Songs like “Up Where We Belong” from An Officer and a Gentleman and “We are Family” are so familiar that everyone in the audience is likely to have some kind of Pavlovian response (in the case of “Up Where We Belong,” viewers might even be bringing along associations with a far better romance than the one they’re watching). The whole movie works this way. Bridget Jones is less a character at this point than a series of signifiers.
The one genuinely appealing thing about Bridget Jones’s Baby for the viewers who have been following the protagonist for 15 years is the fact that by the end of the movie, she seems genuinely happy, and Zellweger is so winning that it’s impossible not to be touched even though in actual dramatic terms the game was rigged from the beginning.
What the viewer takes away from all this will largely depend on what he or she brings into it. There’s a very curious moment toward the film’s climax when Bridget is about to have her baby and one of the men in her life has to carry her down the street against the tide of a feminist protest group. How are we supposed to read this? It’s so loaded with symbolism it can easily be taken as some kind of comment—on gender roles, on feminism, on the conventions of romantic comedies, on something—but Maguire and writers leave it, like so much of the potential in this barely-there sequel, unexplored.
Director: Sharon Maguire
Writers: Emma Thompson, Dan Mazer, Helen Fielding
Starring: Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Patrick Dempsey, Emma Thompson, Gemma Jones, Jim Broadbent
Release Date: September 16, 2016
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.