It’s been two decades since the mishap-prone but irrepressible London singleton at the center of Helen Fielding’s novel Bridget Jones’s Diary first galumphed her way into the hearts of readers, making the book a worldwide best-seller. I’ll admit that I didn’t fall for the cigarette-and-calorie-counting, marriage-fixated Bridget, at least not on the page; I got fed up with the heroine’s circular dithering about men and her appearance and never finished the book. But in 2001, when Renée Zellweger gained 30 much-hyped pounds (thereby coming to resemble something like an average human female) to bring Bridget to life on screen in an adaptation directed by Sharon Maguire, I was won over by Zellweger’s full-hearted incarnation of this permanently flustered and self-sabotaging career girl. Bridget’s values and goals were conventional, yes—she aspired to the status of “smug married” and despaired nightly over the circumference of her thighs—but as played by Zellweger, the character herself was an original: Capable of volatile swings between bubbly and morose, she could also be both a swooning romantic and a proudly self-described “slut.”
Then, too, the movie of Bridget Jones’s Diary came out in the early 2000s when Hugh Grant and Colin Firth were the romantic leading men of the hour. (Like Bridget, audiences didn’t appreciate how good we had it.) As it turned out, Grant’s character was the cad and Firth’s the one true love, but it’s the rare rom-com triangle that boasts two such legitimately appealing rivals. Bridget Jones: Edge of Reason, adapted in 2004 from Fielding’s sequel and directed by Beeban Kidron, pitted the same two swains against each other for Bridget’s hand, ending on the image of a caught bouquet and the strong implication that Bridget and Firth’s Mark would soon be altar-bound.
Bridget Jones’s Baby, directed by the first film’s Maguire, does away with Grant’s character, Daniel, in brisk fashion by setting an early scene at his funeral. (I’ll leave the manner of Daniel’s demise unspoiled, since it makes for a decent dirty joke.) As she whispers intimate memories of her ex into a friend’s ear, Bridget gradually realizes the church is packed with heartsick former girlfriends, all sniffling over the same exact memories. Also present, to Bridget’s horror, is her other ex, the long-unattainable barrister Mark Darcy (Firth), who instead of marrying Bridget apparently continued as her on-again, off-again boyfriend for many torturous years. He’s now with his formidably elegant wife, and the three exchange stiff greetings before Bridget makes a break for the exit.
Though she’s built a successful career as the producer of a singularly terrible-looking news show called Hard News and even gotten down to what she tells us in voiceover is her “target weight,” Bridget has been feeling stuck, lonely, and secretly jealous of her friends with children. A younger colleague drags her to an outdoor music festival, where Bridget winds up having a drunken roll in the hay—or rather, in the yurt of a sexy American entrepreneur (Patrick Dempsey) whose name she’s too embarrassed to ask for before slinking out of his hut on an extra-muddy morning walk of shame.
A week later, at a friend’s christening party, Bridget finds herself again thrown together with Mark. Dancing to “Gangnam Style” with a pack of kids after the festivities, she enjoins her ex to get out on the floor. Then, upon learning that he’s in the process of separating from his wife, she takes off to spend the night with him in a nearby hotel room. You get where this is going, right? Next thing Bridget knows she’s, as she tells us in voiceover, “up the duff,” and while she’s delighted at the prospect of a baby, she has no idea whether McDreamy or McDarcy is the dad.
This all gets established early on, leaving the viewer with adequate time to weigh the relative merits and flaws of Rich Handsome Prospective Husband A and Rich Handsome Prospective Husband B. Outside the world of the Twilight novels, have two men ever sat around so long, politely drumming their fingers, as they wait for one woman to make up her mind? Right up to the moment Bridget hits the delivery room—where she’s met by her dryly hilarious OB-GYN (Emma Thompson, who also did a pass on the clever script)—she’s never without a tender, solicitous helpmate at each elbow.
But why does our heroine have to pick between prospective husbands at all, handsome, rich, or otherwise? There is a brief period in Bridget Jones’s Baby—the equivalent of the third-act “miss you” montage so common in romantic comedies—when single motherhood is envisaged, nonjudgmentally, as an option. (This is not a movie in which “shmashmortion” plays even a coded role.) A subplot about Bridget’s mother (Gemma Jones) running for local political office makes the point, a tad cloyingly, that having a child out of wedlock is far from a scandal in an age of expanding sexual and political freedom (cue shot of adorable elderly men kissing).
Still, the movie’s mores can feel cluelessly retro as the ever-dithering Bridget lurches between one man and another. I know this kind of film is meant as fantasy fulfillment, but I sometimes wanted to bat away all the looming chiseled jawlines and get some sense of how Bridget might reimagine her life if a dude showing up with flowers in the pouring rain really was foreclosed as a possibility. Then a dude showed up with flowers, and soon afterward the other dude dropped by in the pouring rain, and … without spoiling anything about which life path Bridget chose, the history of the romantic comedy genre from Aristotle on down makes it pretty plain that it wasn’t single motherhood.
I don’t mean to suggest that just because it’s now possible to show women onscreen happily choosing lives as “singletons,” that’s the only way they should be shown. There are plenty of people, male and female, who do want just the happy heteronormative life that Bridget has spent the past 15 years waiting and hoping and adorably tripping over furniture for. But think about it: If you had a real-life friend who’d lived Bridget’s story arc—a decade-and-a-half-long saga of ping-ponging between two distant and often unavailable men, ending in an unplanned pregnancy by one of those two exes or possibly a random guy she met at a concert—would you be rooting for her to end up with Mr. Right, or gently suggesting she might try giving life with Ms. Self a shot? There’s no reason romantic comedies shouldn’t be able to ask the same questions we’d ask of our best friends.