Plump It Up

Renée Zellweger is ripe for Bridget Jones’s Diary; Josie and the Pussycats gets by on spunk; Amores Perros has a powerful bite.

Bridget Jones’s Diary

Directed by Sharon Maguire

Miramax Films

Josie and the Pussycats

Directed by Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont

Universal Pictures

Amores Perros

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu

Lions Gate Films

In the film adaptation of Helen Fielding’s wildly successful comic novel Bridget Jones’s Diary, the American actress Renée Zellweger impersonates a plump London single gal who drinks too much and worries she’ll spend the rest of her life alone until her spinster corpse is found half-eaten by her pet Alsatian. Zellweger’s English accent is decent enough—I’ve heard much worse—but you lose something when a character described as “verbally incontinent” is cast with a performer who needs to concentrate on pronouncing every syllable properly. Having dispensed with that (not minor) quibble, let me say in Bridget Jonesy fashion that Zellweger is an irresistible sex goddess, hurrah!!! She has the perfect visage for a movie with “diary” in the title: Her face is an open book—tremulous, squinchy-eyed, continuously flushing. She’s 20 pounds heavier than usual, with balloon cheeks, but the puffiness lightens her, as if she’s lofted by an excess of soul. Americans were lucky to get a Scarlett O’Hara with a formal British steeliness; the Brits should offer thanks for a Bridget Jones with a Yank’s emotional transparency.

They’re especially lucky because this adaptation lacks intimacy. As directed by Sharon Maguire (who’s actually the model for the Sharon/”Shazz” of the book) and co-written by Fielding, Andrew Davies, and Richard Curtis, Bridget Jones’s Diary is a touch brisk for its own good. Gone are many of the mundane details of aloneness—the cycles of eating, drinking, weighing, and telly-watching—to be replaced by a relentlessly straight-ahead bounciness, with Maguire poised to leap into the Pretenders’ “Don’t Get Me Wrong” or some other wry pop anthem. The novel’s Bridget wins our hearts because her life, as filtered through her diary, is so grueling in its accumulation of insults: an unreturned phone call; a gain of three pounds; a relapse into smoking or buying lottery tickets; an excruciating hangover. Her despair—not to mention her compulsion to keep a diary—comes from being a natural exhibitionist without a steady audience, and the film misses entirely the gnawing existential dread at the core of that predicament.

What’s left, however, is quite likable—even sometimes, with the squeezable Zellweger its principal object, lovable. As he proved in Notting Hill (1999), co-writer Richard Curtis is a virtuoso at devising horrific embarrassments for his protagonists, the kind that make audiences scream and avert their eyes. So Bridget has plenty of occasions to blurt out idiocies, make dreadful speeches, warble off-key, get caught in public without clothes, and in general humiliate herself enough for any dozen heroines. Said events inevitably send her weeping into the arms of her clique of dotty female and gay male friends (another Curtis specialty), who offer steady proof that if the universe is a cold bugger, it can be temporarily warmed by snorting, fulminating, and getting drunk in the company of other witty outcasts.

Also by getting laid. Bridget Jones’s Diary travels far on Hugh Grant’s daring turn as Bridget’s Mr. Wrong, the sort of suavely lecherous employer who inspires fantasies of sexual harassment. (No, I’m not making light of sexual harassment—only pointing out that blue eyes, floppy locks, and power provide certain leches with an unfair advantage.) Here, as in the recent The Tailor of Panama (also co-written by Davies), a handsome leading man shows the shady underbelly of his screen persona to stunning effect—the boyish dithering exposed as a masterful piece of artifice. Grant’s Daniel Cleaver is not so much evil as unashamedly self-intoxicated, with a superstar’s sense of entitlement. He’s the perfect foil for Colin Firth’s ill-at-ease Mr. Right, a human-rights lawyer called Mark Darcy, who is too priggish for artifice. It’s a delicious touch that, in the novel, Mark Darcy is contrasted with the Darcy of Pride and Prejudice, who was portrayed in a 1994 BBC miniseries by none other than—Colin Firth! And Bridget is hot for Colin Firth’s Darcy! Lucky Helen Fielding, watching her fictional alter ego get to smooch, mutatis mutandae, one of the most attractive suitors in all literature. It’s enough to make you start a diary.

Given the unsubversive nature of irony these days, the perfect MTV movie would be one in which MTV is portrayed as part of a vast capitalist conspiracy to part teen-agers from their money: “How ironic, ha-ha! See you at the Gap!” That’s the have-it-both-ways idea behind Josie and the Pussycats, which turns the old “Archie Comics” girl group into heroines of a lively satire of rock ’n’ roll as the instrument of big-business brainwashing—a movie that will likely seduce millions into buying the soundtrack, the fashions, and many of the products displayed throughout with ostentatious irony. (How ironic!) Here, conglomerates conspire to introduce subliminal messages into rock songs—“Orange is the new red,” “Gatorade is the new Snapple,” “Heath Ledger is the new Matt Damon,” etc.—and it falls to sudden superstars Josie (Rachael Leigh Cook) and the Pussycats (Tara Reid and Rosario Dawson) to expose the machinations that made them objects of mass adoration. If you predict that Josie and the Pussycats’ victory will result in their rejection by the no-longer-brainwashed audience, you don’t understand MTV’s craftily reassuring definition of “subversive.” They end up bigger than ever!

Here’s another irony: Even if you find the satire in Josie and the Pussycats self-serving, you might still love the movie, buy the soundtrack, and surrender to the hype. That’s what happened to me. I was hooked from the opening dead-on ‘N Sync parody; convulsed by Alan Cumming’s unflappably sleazy British band manager; then floored by the track “3 Small Words”—delivered not as Archies-style bubblegum rock but with the driving power-pop backbeat of Juliana Hatfield or early Divinyls.

The movie goes on too long, but it’s amazing that writer-directors Deborah Kaplan and Harry Elfont sustain this in-jokey screwball punk musical satire as long as they do. They were smart to make their heroines not leggy airhead supermodel types but navel-baring garage-band goddesses who slurp ramen noodles followed by Krispy Kreme doughuts and then do gigs in bowling alleys. Their not-that-improbable odyssey takes them to a neon-suffused Manhattan and supervillainess Parker Posey—as my fantasy of Tina Brown—where they see the cogs of music marketing in stark close-up. (The best detail: The record company documents its destruction of no-longer-useful bands to feed VH1’s Behind the Music.)

Tara Reid is a good throaty Melody—not a dumb blonde, an enchantingly simple blonde—and Rosario Dawson brings to Val a bracing touch of skepticism. I have trouble getting a fix on Rachael Leigh Cook, perhaps because her eyes are so far apart that it’s a wonder they even focus (she’d win a distance-between-eyes contest against Rachel Weisz). Her shockingly good vocals are by Kay Hanley, who helps turn the pumped-up version of the old Josie theme song under the closing credits into a keeper. Who wouldn’t want to slam dance to Saturday morning cartoon music?

From its harrowing opening sequences—a high-speed car crash followed by a snarling, blood-sopped dogfight— Amores Perros goes right for the jugular. This sprawling pulp omnibus, an amazing first feature by the Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu, just keeps coming at you, switching characters, tones, and rhythms to keep you off-guard—never quite prepared for the inevitable worst. Three subplots overlap at that fatal accident, but they’re thematically linked by the presence of dogs (perros), who bring out the best and worst in their masters on the way to a series of shattering epiphanies. In this universe, the dogs of war are always just below the surface, salivating.

Much of the narrative is B-movie stuff (with its interwoven story lines and lurches in time the inevitable comparison is to Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction [1994]), but Iñárritu is more earnest, more emotionally daring, and has more colors on his palette. The film is not all of a piece. The first story, “Octavio and Susana,” revolves around the feral passion of a working-class teen-ager (Gael García Bernal) for his woefully abused sister-in-law (Vanessa Bauche)—a not-entirely-requited ardor that impels him to fight his mutt, Cofi, for money to take her away. The second story, “Daniel and Valeria,” is Polanski territory: a glossy psychological horror story about a supermodel (Goya Toledo), crippled in the opening accident, who develops a wracking obsession with a terrier who has fallen below the floorboards of the luxury apartment she shares with her married lover (Álvaro Guerrero). The last section, “El Chivo and Maru,” explores the existence of a grizzled street person (the charismatically brooding Emilio Echevarría)—a onetime revolutionary who long ago abandoned his wife and daughter and now works as a hired assassin, his only intimates a pack of dogs. His impulse to save Octavio’s battered Cofi from that car wreck has bloody, momentous consequences that throw his life—and the whole movie—into relief.

Reportedly, no animals were injured in the first section’s fighting, and if that’s true, those dogs are great actors. The fights will drive some people from the theater—they’re horrifying—but they’re also vital to the film’s impact: They point up the ways in which the dogs become extensions of their masters’ rage or terror. They also point up the savage, reckless emotion that makes Amores Perros the most enthralling movie of the year.