by Ed Symkus

That the British novel Bridget Jones's Diary was so popular made it even more important to get the screen translation just right. Yet almost immediately there were loud murmurs on both sides of the pond that Renee Zellweger was all wrong for the lead part. What made her so wrong in so many eyes? She was American, not British. Even co-star Hugh Grant now admits that he was initially nervous about the decision. But he came around not long after shooting started. Now it's everyone else's turn.

It's not just that Zellweger -- with the aid of a dialogue coach for the accent and a rather unhealthy eating regimen for the slightly overweight look -- absolutely nailed the part. It's also that everyone else around her, from the other actors to the witty script to the flashy but just loose enough direction, did the same.

I've not read the book, but I've been guaranteed -- by someone who did, and who saw the film with me -- that it's an excellent adaptation, vividly catching the serio-comic dilemmas of the 32-year-old "singleton" who's tired of that label and wants, finally, to meet the right guy. And the character is someone who most viewers -- both male and female -- will care about simply because she's so endearingly real. She has a small but close group of friends, a pushy mom (Gemma Jones, who made a big splash 30 years ago in The Devils) and is tight with her dad (the wonderful Jim Broadbent).

The diary of the title is the device that's used by Bridget and for the viewers to chart her intentions of changing her life for the better. Her entries are sometimes seen on the diary's written page, sometimes heard in voice-over, sometimes splashed across the screen in an outrageous manner (although putting words on a big, flashing advertisement board is copped from Francis Coppola's early film You're a Big Boy Now). It's fair to say, though, that the diary is merely a gimmick until near film's end, when it becomes, at least momentarily, an integral part of the plotline.

The point of the whole thing is that Bridget is supposed to use the diary as a self-help tool. But right off, she breaks a rule she's made for herself and starts fantasizing about a fling with her boss Daniel (Hugh Grant) at the publishing house where she's a publicist. Never one not to take advantage of someone obviously flirting with him, Daniel sends some messages right back, and they're soon an item. But there's also Mark (Colin Firth) to deal with. He's a guy Bridget's known seemingly forever, who's always been on the periphery, always the odd man out, someone who she's probably thought about, but never in that way.

It's not very hard to see where the film is going, but for those who haven't read the book, there are plenty of surprises along the way in getting there. There's "stomach-holding-in panties" to deal with, and there's a wonderful running gag involving a couple of cameos by Salman Rushdie, and, in one of the film's best moments, a very funny, really weird fistfight, for lack of a better term, between a couple of British gents who aren't exactly he-men.

The film is actually funny, except for a brief, serious sidetrack or two, from start to finish. Author Helen Fielding's screenplay is terrifically aided by support from Richard Curtis, who wrote Notting Hill and Four Weddings and a Funeral, and is the co-creator, with Rowan Atkinson, of Mr. Bean. Zellweger, as she displayed last year in Nurse Betty, has great comic delivery, and Grant, perhaps because his comic lines are of a harsher variety, is even better at getting the laugh.

The business with Bridget's parents not getting along all that well that doesn't add much to the story and, in fact, breaks up the mood for a short while. But because both actors are so good -- especially the sad, confused portrayal by Broadbent -- the filmmakers can be pardoned for including it.

One of the best performances in the film belongs to Firth, whose character goes through a wide and believable arc. But Zellweger must also be praised for smoothly going from unsure to fabulously happy to shattered to happy again.

A word of warning to the prudes in the audience -- there's some salty language tossed in for good measure, most of it used in a slangy British way. But it's only the comedy that really stands out, and that's a good thing. It's usually the verbal type, but one sight gag about German shepherds will get the theater rocking.

Another warning -- a nice hint, really -- don't run for the doors as soon as the film ends. The credits have a surprise involving an event that's been alluded to almost from the film's beginning. It's a cute little gift for those who stick around.

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