Bridg Over Troubled Water

Whether you had it pegged it as once-in-a-lifetime or one-out-of-four odds, you know what the biggest surprise of 2016 was.

Here’s a surprise runner-up: Bridget Jones’s Baby is stunning.

The plot of BJB is fine: Bridg (Renée Zellweger) gets knocked up during a knockabout fortnight, and Jack Qwant (Patrick Dempsey, in for a nonplussed Hugh Grant) and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth, adequately plussed) play dueling bravados until DNA testing rides to the rescue. It’s not quite Merchant of Venice, but it’s tighter than her previous comedies of errors.

Romance and career, her two keynote bugaboos, still tease her and taunt her as they did previously, but there’s no flight of abandon. Or vodka-swilling. Or singing to pop radio.

There’s no… Bridgeting.

She’s grown past it. In the opening, she declines to belt out an “abandoned on my birthday” ballad and Jumps Around instead.

This version of Bridget is — by an order of magnitude — less daunted by the usual romance and career hiccups. Oh, they happen, but even as a keynote presentation descends into flames, she retains a modicum of grace. (She even, controversially, has a handle on her weight.)

The ultimate indicator that something’s shifted? At one point, a row of portable toilets is tipped over. And Bridget isn’t in one of them.

It takes fortitude to mess with the formula — and lest you forget, the formula produced Wild-Hair Bridget and Misplaced Tart Bridget and Teach the Inmates Madonna Bridget. So why monkey with the Bridget equation now?

Let’s jog through the possible influences.

It’s off-book, literally. The first two Bridget movies were adaptations of Helen Fielding novels. BJB, though, was an adaptation of Fielding’s 2005–06 columns in The Independent, written in the wake of the movie adaptations and when Fielding was 47. Being able to bring Bridget into her forties (a) as a fortysomething herself and (b) at the newspaper where the Bridget column was born may have unlocked something.

Emma Thompson got involved. The script for BJB bounced around for a full five years, from 2009 to 2014, and was reportedly bad enough to get Hugh Grant to tag out. Thompson (Oscar winner for adapting Sense and Sensibility, mind you) got involved in October 2014, and by July 2015, they were shooting. Was this the key to Bridget’s buoyancy? Or was it because…

Richard Curtis didn’t get involved. A key contributor to the first two Bridget scripts, Curtis struggles with female characters. (Others have beaten us to this space, and how.) Love Actually is openly virulent towards women. The leading ladies of The Boat That Rocked were Katherine Parkinson (lesbian cook), January Jones (goddess), and Gemma Arterton (permissive groupie). The climax of About Time, a movie about the courtship of Rachel McAdams, doesn’t feature Rachel McAdams. And so on. When your main character is a female icon, you can’t keep turning to a slap-fight between dudes.

Bridget outgrew her brain trust. Ironically so, since Shazza, Jude, and Tom are each consumed with children, while Bridget is the lone singleton. Per normal, their counsel is mostly a miasma of curse words — camaraderie that meant more when they were palpable comrades. (Heck, Shazza’s cachet expired the moment she set Bridg up to be a drug mule in Edge of Reason.) You think Bridget suffers from this separation? Not remotely. She relishes the absurdity of them ditching her on her birthday. She’s moved past these three before you’ve even settled in your seat.

Middle age is a rebirth. Is it a specific age where you sweep the foolishness of youth under the rug, or is it a milestone moment? Whatever the answer, Bridget has reached it. Past transgressions have transitioned from being hauntings to being lessons. Director Sharon Maguire uses plenty of flashbacks, but never to pull up an “Oh, that Bridget!” embarrassment. Normally, if the hits got you to where you are, you play the hits. Instead, this is acknowledgement that Bridget has morphed into a new character for BJB.

Men handle life’s slow march poorly. Mark has defied evolution: same job, another decayed marriage, still socially stilted at family gatherings. Jack is new, but has quantified romance for others while retaining free agent status. That’s old. Daniel Cleaver is frozen in time, memorialized as a playboy. Bridget’s dad dodders. Her boss flounders. None of these men has the nous to help anyone, themselves included. This feels in line with reality; it’s only missing the “You take the kids” flights of golfing fancy that men take.

Women handle life’s slow march brilliantly. Not only do the women in BJB ace the Bechdel test (relating to one another without needing a Y chromosome present), they run the joint. The main character, the boss, the political activists, the election winner, the doctor, and the news anchor are all female, and are all thriving. Emma Thompson (the doctor) hammers this home: “You don’t really need them, you know. All they’re good for is fitting car seats and blaming things on. They really just get in the way after that. You’re absolutely capable of doing this on your own.” And they do. Think there’s a man in the delivery room? Why waste the space.

People acted like people. Spoilers: What happens to the dueling men who at first were thrilled to meet one another? They become friends. What does the woman who just got fired go home and do? Have a perfectly predictable “down” evening. What does everyone do when tempers flare? Remind each other that the baby is true north, then calm down. Who acts like this? Real people. Who in BJB fights in a fountain, upends a rowboat, mistakes a prostitute’s gender, and has a secret American fiancé? No one, and maybe that was Daniel Cleaver’s biggest contribution to the franchise. He got dead.

It’s not any one of these influences; it’s surely a mix of all of them. And they combine to broadcast a clear and comforting thesis:

Once you get past a certain point in your life, the madness is behind you.

Yes, it was Bridget bloomin’ Jones who taught us that eventually, you get to embrace the wisdom of years as a distinction rather than a disability. If you anticipated that as the ultimate premise of the Bridget Jones trilogy, then nothing in 2016 must have surprised you.

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