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Bridget Jones and Romantic Comedies

posted by Paul on 4/18/01

I have a slew of cinematic guilty pleasures. Many of them have been unleashed on this site, and many will continue to be unleashed on this site. If a movie is hysterically bad or perversely good, chances are I'll like it. Call it a streak of misfortune of which I was tarnished.

Terrible movies aside, I'm a big fan of the much-reviled "chick flick". Movies that are written, acted and totally catered to the female market. I'm a guy (honest). I'm not supposed to like them, but I'm a big softie that still believes that romance and love aren't just by-words of cheesy soaps.

I'm a fan of all the classic romances, and even the newer breed, replete with Julia Roberts' horse-like gums and Hugh Grant's foppish hair and pleasing Englishness. I laughed at "Four Weddings..", I enjoyed "Sliding Doors" and I'm not ashamed to say that "Notting Hill" had a fan in me. The formula is tired and easy to forecast:

a) Boy meets girl. Or vice-versa.

b) Boy likes/dislikes girl. Or vice-versa.

c) Boy soon realizes that there is a romantic possibility with girl. Or vice-versa.

d) Boy and girl explore romantic possibilities. All is going well.

e) There is a conflict or misunderstanding that leads to them splitting up and looking sad while melancholy soundtrack music booms.

f) Conflict is somehow resolved.

g) They realize that they were meant to be together and eventually hook up, unsually in some far-fetched scenario with a "happy ever after" message.

Simple as that. Pick your characters, choose your hooks, splice in some comedy and humorously absurd friends and you'll be smiling all the way to the box office. But I suspect the soothing formula is the reason for the success, for while I like a range of movies, there's an unshakable charm that goes along with the romantic comedy genre.

Whereas movies like "Fight Club" enjoyably tell us what a cesspool we're all living in, movies like "Pretty Woman" provide a semblance of hope. Maybe you're not a suave millionaire who rams unwilling gerbils up your butt, nor an implausibly attractive Ho who flosses, but it's nice to dream. These movies, above all, give us something to which we can cling. Perhaps we'll meet and marry that impossibly perfect girl who gets and complements us so completely.

And not that hog with the bad breath and poor people skills, who you'll have to suffer for the next thirty years of your stupid, little life, while you quit your job and flip burgers. Then get shot by a closet homosexual you spurned.

But anyway..

"Bridget Jones's Diary" , the latest entrant into the so-called "rom-com" division, is actually one of its most pleasing. An adaptation of a wildly successful novel by British author, Helen Fielding, this has been one of the most eagerly-awaited movies of the year. The book, which focused on the trials and tribulations of a London-based neurotic, spoke to dissatisfied "career women" and won praise for its unabashed opinions from the feminine perspective. There are very few ballsy women characters in the works of literature. Bridget Jones, with her chain-smoking, weight-obsessing and downright neurotic tendencies, was and remains a breath of fresh air.

Naturally, a book with such a loyal following, was bound to be adapted to the big-screen. And, quicker than you can say "cash-in" the rights were sold. To be directed by the author's friend, Sharon Maguire. Casting was a problem. Bridget was typically British, and her die-hard fans wanted a British gal to play her. No-one else would do. The obvious choice was Kate Winslet. Like the protagonist, she is physically rounded, womanly and has proven herself capable of portraying self-concious characters. And she's British. And had enormous name value following the success of "Titanic".

But that was a no-go.

Other names were thrown into the hat. However, none of the other candidates could realistically embody this unique, nuanced character. Out of the blue, the producers announced that they had opted for a Texan - Renee Zellweger. It was a surprise, and cynical fans were livid. Just as they had done with "Sliding Doors" and "Tomb Raider", film-makers designated an English part to an American actress. It looked like money was doing most of the talking, but the cynics were unfairly overlooking Zellweger's gifts as an actress. Because in a profession where actresses can get by on looks (Jennifer Love Hewitt), the casting couch (Sharon Stone) or pure nepotism (Kate Hudson, Gwyneth Paltrow), Zellweger excels as an actress. She has the appearance of a legitimately honest and down-to-earth woman, and not in that superficially Hollywood way. In movies such as "Jerry Maguire" and "Nurse Betty", she showed she could command attention. She's appeared alongside acting powerhouses like Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman and Meryl Streep and she's never been outclassed.

The other main roles were fleshed out by Hugh Grant as her caddish and "too-good-to-be-true" boss, and Colin Firth, a respected British actor best known for playing dashing Mark Darcy in "Pride and Prejudice". He also impressed in "Shakespeare in Love" and did a great job in Nick Hornby's snubbed "Fever Pitch". That movie was the first Hornby book adapted into a movie, and many of you readers will unfortunately not be able to relate to a guy/fictional character obsessed with soccer, who uses his adoration as a metaphor for life. That's your loss. In book form, "Fever Pitch" scored, but the movie was lukewarm by comparison.

It's hard to turn a cherished book into an equally good movie, but they tried it here and they've tried it before. All with varying degrees of success. My favorite book-to-movie adaptations are "Misery", Hornby's "High Fidelity", "Stand by Me" and "A Time to Kill". That's off the top of my head. There are others. "Godfather" is one of the few movies that improved upon the literature, and that seems to be the trend. Decent books make better movies, while great books are nearly impossible to translate to the screen. For a number of reasons, really:

1) Reading a book is so much different than watching a movie. Books offer a much more personal experience and can employ a range of literary devices to convey their meanings. Movies have to be breezy, instant, and sharp. There is little time for exposition or the fleshing out of irrelevant characters.

2) Movies have to run to schedule. There are time limits and running times. Some details get lost in the translation, characters are deleted and/or modified and scenarios are given a fresh spin or are completely dropped in favor of brevity.

3) Many books are enjoyed because the writer's voice is heard and appreciated by its die-hard readers. Take Stephen King, for instance. His books are much loved because his distinctive style is present throughout his huge body of work. Lots of psychological prose, long sentences and probing the characters' inner-most thoughts. Try to present that on the cinematic canvas, and you're often left with a pale imitation of the source. Same paint, different artist = poor movie.

Surprisingly, this movie falls into the successful category, making a smooth transition from page to screen. There are some major scenes and character traits that weren't present in the book, but that doesn't weaken the final product. In the book, Bridget's mother is less eccentric than in the movie, and her friends play a more prominent role in the book. In this, they're just cardboard cut-outs designed for cheap comedy and padding scenes. This is one of the most annoying features of romantic comedies, particularly recent ones. Rather than giving us supporting characters with emotions and depth, the film-makers take the easy approach. Make them hilariously camp, uncouth or just socially inept. Here, we have an over-the-top gay guy and a woman who can't stop saying "fuck".

Laughing yet?

The amazing thing is, many people do laugh at these tired retreads. And while Spike from "Notting Hill" was funny, I didn't laugh once at the supporting characters here. For me, they just detracted from the good stuff, like Hugh Grant commenting on Bridget's inexcusable "granny knickers". Or Hugh Grant and Colin Firth fighting like a couple of sedated fairies. Coincidentally, that fight scene is one of the most realistic you're likely to see in the movies, since real fights don't involve text-book jabbing and people throwing each other through cars.

Most of us are great big pussies.

The moments of truth in "Bridget Jones's Diary" make it enduring. Many of us can relate to her plight, and I know that while I don't obsess over my weight nor keep an ironic journal, there are still a lot of things I'd like to change in my life. Because, at her core, Bridget is just like the rest of us. Unhappy with her life and looking to improve. And it must be applauded that the film-makers weren't condescending about Britishness. So many of these movies try to paint a stereotypical picture of Britain, and we're left with characters who talk about making tea and say "shagging" instead of "fucking" (e.g "I'm sick of this shagging job"). The truth is, Britain has become very Americanized with all your imported garbage-patch shows polluting the screens- and I've never heard anyone use "shagging" as an adjective. Nor do I want to. It's as patronizing as British film-makers making an American movie in which every character obsesses over food, talks loudly and concludes each sentence with "man".

Stereotypes are shagging awful, man.

I didn't like the way Darcy (Firth's character) was portrayed. No, Firth does a fine job of acting, but his character is an interminable bore who shows little to no emotion. Grant's Daniel Cleaver was a sleazy bum-slapper, but at least he was interesting and intriguingly sleazy. Living a life with Darcy would invoke deep-seated self loathing, I'd imagine. The other thing I disliked was how the writers often went for cheap laughs. Like Bridget showing up to a formal gathering dressed as a Playboy bunny, or falling in a sweaty heap after a rigorous work-out. I'm sick to death of seeing people falling over or walking into walls being passed off as comedy. It's been done to death and it's almost obligatory now. You can see the prat-fall from a mile away, anyway, hence the lack of movement in my rib cage.

However, this movie wasn't designed for major laughs or deep insights. It's there to entertain and divert, which, when you think about it, should be the purpose of most movies. Judging it on those merits, it's hard not to like, and you'll certainly feel much better after watching it.

Even if Bridget does end up with the wrong guy.

Bonus - What Happens Next?

It's mandatory that most rom-coms will end with the "happily ever after" scenario. That's all well and good, and pleasing to the peons, but what would happen to the characters after the lights go down and they've disembarked from their romantic abode? What happens when the "I want to spend the rest of my life with you" proclamations have dimmed? Well, let's look at a few movie couplings and analyze that very question.

Couple: Edward Lewis and Vivian Ward.
Occupations: Businessman and whore. She's just a whore.
Met: When he "accidentally" swerved by a bunch of hookers. Pervert.
Chances that relationship lasted: Very slim. She was a hooker with a heart of gold, he was a businessman with a hair of grey. Once they realized how incompatible they were, it's likely they went their separate ways. And she probably give him some horrible STD, and he died of AIDS. Not much future in this one.

Couple: William Thacker and Anna Scott.
Occupations: Book-keeper. Actress.
Met: When he spilt coffee over her spoilt Hollywood ass. Ok, it was her chest, but you get the metaphor. I hope.
Chances that relationship lasted: Not good. She probably ditched him when she realized he wasn't rich, famous or powerful enough to advance her career. Probably only with him for publicity, anyway. Who could handle her ego? Who could handle his foppishness?

Couple: Bridget Jones and Mark Darcy.
Occupations: Publishing exec. Barrister.
Met: When he was visiting her mother in a poorly advised sweater. He hated her.
Chances that relationship lasted: Err. He could put Richard Simmons to sleep and she's a self-hating vixen. It probably lasted, because he's boring enough to get laid a lot. And she's leechy enough to let him.

The romantic comedy is a very lucrative genre and the success of the major releases will see more formulaic "weepies" being churned out at an alarming rate. Laugh all you want, but we all find something to enjoy in Meg Ryan hooking up with some ugly actor, because ugly dudes rock. It lets us know:

- that ugly men can get superficially sweet women.

- that Julia Roberts will act wholesome for $20 million.

- that we can all meet that special person.

And in Bridget Jones's own words..



Of course, any industry that offers J-Lo up as a wholesome romancer or Richard Gere and Winona Ryder as an item is greviously corrupt.

Will not be paranoid about weight.

Will develop inner poise.

Will not form romantic attachments to any of the following: alcoholics, workaholics, peeping toms, megalomaniacs, or f*ckwits.

Will not fantasize about a particular person who embodies these things: my boss.

Will stop writing about cynical blockbusters..

AOL IM: paulwdfans

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