A Diarist In Distress … Morgan Freeman, Killer Cop

A Diarist in Distress

Renée Zellweger is a huggable human pastry everyone wants to

take a bite of, and in Bridget Jones’s

Diary she’s more delicious than ever. Having scarfed down a few hundred

eclairs herself to gain the weight to play the single, 32-year-old,

Chardonnay-swigging, chain-smoking, lovelorn title character in this lively

film version of Helen Fielding’s bestseller, there is also a great deal more of

her to hug.

Cut from the same

romantic taffeta as Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral , the movie

is about a year in the life of a gal for whom the past is a zero and the future

shows less promise than a winter in Vermont without snow. On New Year’s Day, as

she endures another traditional turkey-curry buffet with her nagging mother,

Bridget peruses her resolutions-to stop drinking, cease smoking, lose weight

and find a responsible boyfriend-and starts a diary to improve her life.

Unfortunately for her (but lucky for us), her character keeps getting in the

way.

Bridget works for a London publishing house, where she

begins an e-mail flirtation and then a real after-hours affair with her boss

(Hugh Grant). We know he’s a narcissistic cad before she does, but when she finds

a naked woman in his flat, she dumps him and chucks her job at the same time.

Newly ensconced as a reporter for a current-affairs show called Sit Up Britain , she gets a scoop while

covering a political refugee’s trial when the defendant’s lawyer (Colin Firth)

grants her an exclusive interview, and a new affair begins with this handsome

human-rights barrister. Things are looking up. But life gets in the way.

Her parents’ marriage curdles when her flaky Mum (Gemma

Jones) leaves her morose couch-potato Dad (Jim Broadbent) for a flamboyant poof

who sells costume jewelry on the Home Shopping Network. The handsome lawyer

dumps Bridget for an over-confident American girl. Making her mark on society

by attending a chic garden tea, she shows

up as a prostitute, mistakenly thinking it’s a costume party. Even when

she does the Good Samaritan bit by dropping coins into a homeless couple’s cup,

her charitable pride is crushed as she walks away, overhearing one of them say,

“What a lovely, caring person!” “Yes,” says the other, “shame about the

thighs.”

Bridget Jones just can’t

seem to get her moons in balance or her planets to align. No wonder she loses

herself in vodka and Chaka Khan records before she sees the light. Regular

bouts of public embarrassment and culinary disaster eventually force Bridget’s

two admirers to duke it out with flying fists, leaving one of them to recognize

her true charms. I won’t tell you which one. Suffice it to say it all ends up

with Bridget, still a size 12 but working on those thighs night and day,

chasing Mr. Right down the street in the snow in her skimpy knickers. The kiss,

in that fadeout embrace, is right out of Barbra Streisand’s sappy fiasco The Mirror Has Two Faces -a small cavil,

considering all the thorny and sympathetic humor that has preceded it. So the

year in the life of a girl with low self-esteem ends in the kind of Hollywood

finale Bridget has always dreamed of-but, we suspect, a new diary is just

beginning.

It’s fortunate that such a larky update of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice manages to balance

sentimentality with farce so skillfully. Neither Bridget nor her diary takes

things the least bit seriously. Just as Candace Bushnell’s Sex and the City was based on a series in the pages of The New

York Observer , Ms. Fielding culled the diary entries in Bridget Jones’s Diary from her own

regular column in the Independent .

Both deal with the concerns of career girls, anxiety-riddled and driven to

comic despair by the need to “have it all.” The big difference is that Bridget

is British. She makes impossible social blunders, rarely wastes time shopping,

and celebrates failures at home and office with more irony than fury. The Brits

are better at self-deprecating modesty (even on a big budget), and the efforts

of everyone involved to poke fun at

themselves are funny, engaging, and winning.

I hadn’t thought about it, but one London critic was helpful

in pointing out the puncturing of various illusions, beginning with Hugh Grant,

whose real-life scandal with a Hollywood hooker is snickered over in the book,

and who plays against type in the film with the prissy line: “I’m a terrible

disaster with a posh voice and a bad character.” It’s also no secret that Colin

Firth’s stuffy lawyer is named Darcy, and Mr. Firth played Jane Austen’s haughty

hero Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Pride

and Prejudice , a series that Bridget watches compulsively (and which was

also written by Andrew Davies, a co-author of the Bridget Jones screenplay). For further puncturing of literary

illusion, Salman Rushdie and Jeffrey Archer appear as themselves in

none-too-flattering cameos. Richard Curtis, another of the film’s writers, is

Helen Fielding’s real-life ex-boyfriend, and Sharon Maguire, making her debut

as the film’s director, is the model for one of Bridget’s best friends, the

man-hungry feminist Sharon (nicknamed Shazzer). Art imitates life (or vice

versa) on both sides of the Atlantic, regardless of accent.

Which brings me at last to Renée Zellweger, whose accent is

so perfect you’d swear she came right out of Hampstead on Heath instead of the

University of Texas. More conventional casting would have landed Cate Blanchett

or Kate Winslet the role, but Ms. Z. has an advantage: She seems more of an

outsider trying to fit in. She’s as clumsy and gauche as a Texas armadillo,

victimized by an endless stream of “bad-hair days” in clothes that make her

look like one of the kids on Ding Dong

School , but much more user-friendly with her studied accent and

delightfully on-target timing. And, of course, there’s the unavoidable touch

factor she’s always got going for her, which makes you want to pinch her first,

then rub on the astringent before she bruises. She’s very good at the farcical

elements, too, such as when, during a voiceover from her diary pledging to be

sober, she falls out of a cab in a drunken heap, or mimes a song using a

breadstick for a mike. The sweetness, the longing, the ability to laugh at her own pathetic thirtysomething need to get

her act together are beautifully modulated into a charming and dysfunctional

character portrait that is nothing less than adorable.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

is a lighthearted, lightheaded burst of cool energy in a sluggish year. It’s

the kind of film you can sip easily, like Bridget’s dry Chardonnay, and leave

feeling dizzy.

Morgan Freeman,

Killer Cop

After surviving all

those near-death experiences in Kiss the

Girls , Morgan Freeman appears once again, in Along Came a Spider , as Dr. Alex Cross, the brilliant detective and

fearless forensic psychologist in Washington, D.C., who specializes in tracking

down and profiling the freaks and maniacs nobody else can catch. It’s another

adaptation from the popular series by James Patterson, a writer of pulp

thrillers which populate the nation’s beaches every summer like popsicle wrappers

and wraparound Ray-Bans. Cross is always throwing in the towel on wacko rapists

and aggressive serial killers, but he never seems to get around to taking a

vacation from mayhem or changing jobs. This is as it should be, because a

vacation from mayhem would deprive us of a lot of fun watching a fine actor

comfortably wearing a familiar role like suede elbow patches.

In Along Came a Spider ,

the spider is a particularly cunning and mean-spirited freak who is in the

kidnapping business for fame, not ransom money. This fiend kidnaps the daughter

of a United States Senator (Michael Moriarty), basing each facet of the game on

the 1932 Lindbergh baby kidnapping and hiding the clues in computers. Every

clue is meticulously analyzed by Dr. Cross (with much brow furrowing and chin

scratching by Mr. Freeman, who does this sort of thing so well) and his bright,

beautiful and dedicated new assistant, Jezzie Flannigan (Monica Potter), the

Secret Service agent whose negligence was responsible for the child’s disappearance

in the first place.

Midway through the film, after a second kidnapping goes

awry, Dr. Cross and Jezzie think they’re close to solving the case. Suddenly,

the villain abandons plans for committing the “crime of the century,” the

Lindbergh plot seems to be out the window, and the character of the criminal

they think they’ve figured out reverses 180 degrees when he demands a ransom of

$10 million in diamonds delivered in a thermos. Up to this point, as

psychological thrillers go, Along Came a

Spider is not very thrilling. Then Dr. Cross traps the loony and kills him

in a crossfire that wounds Jezzie. The movie seems to be over before anything

nerve-wracking has even happened. Is that all there is? The audience’s

disappointment is palpable. But hold on to that popcorn. You ain’t seen nothing

yet. This thing is just revving up.

In an amazing plot twist, the Lindbergh copycat turns out to

be another kidnapper who makes the first creep look like a Harvard Lampoon parody. Then, while Cross and Jezzie race against

time to save the child from a real killer more ruthless than the first, the

plot twists again and a third archfiend enters the picture, one who is

brilliant enough to outwit them all. I won’t spoil the fun by saying more, but

I can promise you enough clever surprises and pulse-quickening suspense to make

you gasp out loud. The slow pace, leisurely plotting and lack of terror in the

early sections of the film are deliberate attempts to calm your nerves before

the hairs rise on the back of your neck for real.

A lot of that tempo and structure is the work of the gifted

New Zealand director Lee Tamahori, whose excellent and unusual films have never

failed to excite me. They include the powerful dramas Once Were Warriors and Mulholland

Falls and the terrifying, underrated outdoor thriller The Edge , with Alec Baldwin, Anthony Hopkins and the most ferocious

man-eating bear ever seen on film. Mr. Tamahori is a distinguished and creative

filmmaker whose visions are unique, gratifying and never what you expect. I admire

Morgan Freeman’s unflappable strength and Monica Potter’s extraordinary beauty

and cool intelligence under fire, but it is Mr. Tamahori’s steely-eyed clarity

of vision and unexpected tension that traps in Along Came a Spider’s eerie, entertaining web.