GIRLFRIENDS, it doesn't get much worse than this: After a New Year's gathering begins and ends in humiliation for 32-year-old Bridget Jones, she begins a


Shag in the city

Singleton seeks nice, sensible boyfriend.

GIRLFRIENDS, it doesn't get much worse than this: After a New Year's gathering begins and ends in humiliation for 32-year-old Bridget Jones, she begins a diary to chronicle her intended path to self-improvement—with the ultimate goal of finding a boyfriend. Sitting alone in her London apartment, smoking and swigging red wine, she shrieks along with "All By Myself" on the stereo until she's flailing around her living room. She's defeated and rumpled, like the awful outfit her mother made her wear to that day's party; her shelves are filled with self-help books. She's pathetic; we cringe at her—but we're drawn in by her unselfconscious rebellion against spinsterhood.


directed by Sharon Maguire with Ren饠Zellweger, Hugh Grant, and Colin Firth opens April 13 at Majestic Bay, Metro, Pacific Place, and other theaters

Helen Fielding's best-selling 1998 novel allowed one Ms. Jones to combat society's ostracism of her lonely-working-girl status with bitterness, sarcasm, and manic self-betterment. Yet Diary's script—in which Fielding had a hand—actually develops the paradox of the unreliable diarist more fully: In her own eyes, this unmarried publicity assistant is an ungainly, nicotine-dependent loser with a tendency to drink too much and whose chances of finding "a nice, sensible boyfriend" are nil. What we see: A fairly normal, smart, cheeky blonde, who blushes all colors of the sunset when confronted with one awkward situation after another.

Those accustomed to English movies know full well that if someone exhibits pallor in their first screen appearance, they're done for. Conversely, if a character's cheeks are flushed from one scene to the next, they're likely to elicit a whole theaterful of sympathy. So it is with poor Bridget—we like her because she's like all the rest of us on a really, really bad day. This much-anticipated film is rife with these epidermal contrasts; as with other witty Brit hits (Notting Hill, Four Weddings and a Funeral) the players wear their hearts on their faces.

THANKFULLY, these are faces we like to watch: Zellweger, who proved she could find nuance alongside naive self-deprecation in Jerry Maguire and Nurse Betty, here combines genuine sweetness with a blurty, ballsy edge. (Her added weight isn't that noticeable, nor is her accent—after a while.) Her Bridget's no doormat; she'll stick up for herself, even if it means she won't be getting a shag. She sparkles with private elation when she receives an e-mail from her (very pale) shifty-eyed womanizer boss, Daniel (devilishly dapper Hugh Grant), then later drowns her sorrows with vodka and Chaka Khan when he proves his "major fuckwittage."

Daniel's rival is the straight-and-narrow barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), previously an unwitting accomplice to Bridget's New Year's debacle. Having smoldered onscreen as the original Mr. Darcy in A&E's 1995 production of Pride and Prejudice, Firth plays the Tall, Dark, and Hard-to-Read sort with a swoony variety of intense expressions and piercing glances. When Darcy and Bridget reconnect, he honestly tries, like his Austen namesake, to come clean about his former aloofness. "There are elements of the ridiculous about you," he says in an ardent tone that would cause any woman in her right mind to throw off her clothes then and there.

As Diary ambles along at a jolly good clip, charting Bridget's weight gain/loss, drinks imbibed, and fags inhaled, it's never terribly deep or unpredictable—which is fine. But while it delivers on almost every level (comic, hormonal, pop-cultural) and never forgets to entertain (watch for some wonderful cameos), there's an overall feel-good fluffiness that softens the book's central dilemmas: How does a career girl get a date? How does anyone meet anyone compatible, ever? Employing Austen's standard plot of would-be lovers and mistaken first impressions, Diary will either leave you smiling or smiling but wanting a little more. Even then, it still beats the pants off that show about those oversexed chicks in New York City.

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