It's been 12 years since we last checked in with Bridget Jones, the lovably hapless British romantic heroine and controversial feminist icon. The third film based around author Helen Fielding's enduringly popular character bears no resemblance to Fielding's third book -- which picked up with Bridget in her 50's and a widow. Rather, the charming "Bridget Jones's Baby" finds her facing motherhood. Though the film doesn't quite reach the heights of the original, it easily bests the disastrous "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," and delivers plenty of laughs and a little bit of heart thanks to original director Sharon Maguire (who returns to the series after sitting out the second installment), and an unsurprisingly appealing lead performance.
Once again portrayed by Renée Zellweger, Bridget is feeling some anxiety about turning 43. Her relationship with on-again, off-again beau Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) has been off for five years -- enough time for him to get married to another woman. Her other sometimes-paramour, Hugh Grant's caddish Daniel Cleaver, is out of the picture for reasons that soon become evident. Although Bridget's love life is on hold, she's not letting it get her down. Besides, she's got plenty of reason to celebrate: her career has continued to flourish, and she's now working as a successful television producer.
Time has done nothing to smooth out Bridget's rough edges. She's still drinking too much, showing up inappropriately dressed to social engagements, and constantly putting her foot in her mouth. For a while it seems as though the film is going to coast on nostalgia for the earlier films, dutifully trotting out the expected references and rehashing the most memorable jokes from the original, but once the plot kicks in, the film settles into a nice rhythm and finds its own voice.
While on a mini-break to an all-too-hip music festival, she ends up having a one night stand with affable American billionaire Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey), who's made his fortune by quantifying (heh heh) romance down to an algorithm, channeling the results into a popular dating website and online romance empire.
Shortly after returning home, she ends up reconnecting with Mark during a christening and as he reveals that his marriage is at an end, the sparks are rekindled, and the pair inevitably tumble into bed. One positive pregnancy test later, and it appears that Miss Jones is pregnant and there's plenty of doubt over who the father might be.
Somewhat unexpectedly, both men react positively to news of their potential fatherhood, and once again Bridget finds herself forced to make a decision between two men in her life. A romance with Jack looks good on paper (they're a 97 percent match according to his website's calculations), while her past with Mark has been fulfilling, it's still a whole lot messier.
The film adds in some other side plots revolving around her mother (Gemma Jones) campaigning for a local election, and Darcy (now a successful barrister) taking on a case defending a persecuted, Pussy Riot-esque punk grrrl group -- but both stories don't add much and never really go anywhere. Much better is Bridget's adversarial relationship with her new, 20-something boss (well-played by Kate O'Flynn), who wants to shake up the show's format with something more hip and current.
For any of its missteps, "Bridget Jones's Baby" is an undeniably big step up from the last outing. Maguire keeps things bright and lively, and avoids letting the tone become too sitcom-y no matter how silly things get. Despite the time away from the character, Zellweger slips easily back into her most iconic role (which even earned her an Oscar nod the first time around). She delivers an appealing, vulnerable performance that's funny while still ensuring the characters remains recognizably human.
Sally Phillips, James Callis, and Shirley Henderson all return as Bridget's trio of close friends, still offering support and giving her questionable romantic advice. Their chorus is nicely rounded out by Sarah Solemani as the anchor of Bridget's television news magazine. Emma Thompson is a film highlight as Bridget's shockingly patient OB/GYN (Thompson also acts as screenwriter, along with Fielding and Dan Mazer).
It's nice to see a romantic comedy centered around a working woman in her 40's, who is sex-positive, and makes no apologies for being exactly who she is, faults and all. "Bridget Jones's Baby" should please fans of the character. It captures the spirit of what made her so appealing in the first place, while bringing her into the modern age to inspire a whole new legion of fans.
Check back on Friday for additional film coverage, including a review of Oliver Stone's "Snowden."