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'Bridget Jones's Baby': A Bad Rom-Com Disguised as Definitely Not a Rom-Com

As critics announce the death of the romantic comedy, the newest iteration in the Bridget Jones series attempts to remake the beloved clumsy protagonist into a worldly modern woman.

by Liza Batkin
Sep 29 2016, 3:00pm

Screengrab via YouTube

The canonical second scene in Bridget Jones's Diary shows a perpetually single 32-year-old Bridget Jones at home alone after her mother's annual turkey curry party where she was sexually harassed by a family friend and described by new acquaintance Mark Darcy as a "verbally incontinent spinster who drinks like a fish and smokes like a chimney." She reclines on her couch, drinks red wine, smokes cigarettes, watches Frasier, and ultimately performs a full-bodied lip-sync to the song "All by Myself." It was in this scene, and in subsequent others, that Bridget Jones taught women how to wallow. She assembled the recipe—television, wine, pajamas, crooning vocalists—that is now standard for treating self-pity: not the dark brooding of depressed cinematic men, but a light kind of anguish that allows us to experience discontentment as a sort of pleasurable indulgence.

Bridget Jones's Baby, which takes place ten years after Diary, begins in a similar place. Bridget's best friends have flaked on her birthday plans in order to take care of their young children, or, in one case, to prepare for an adoption. This leaves Bridget alone on her sofa with a single birthday cupcake punctured by a tipping candle. The song on the radio is "All by Myself"—until, in a tiny gesture of great narrative importance, Bridget rolls her eyes at herself and changes the channel. We are instantly introduced to a new Bridget, just turned 43, who does not wallow, drinks white wine while she tidies the apartment, and literally jumps around on her bed to the song "Jump Around." She is a high-powered TV executive for a serious news station called "Hard News," has achieved her "perfect weight," quit smoking, and seems to have reduced her alcohol intake. When she walks down the street, men turn their heads, and she holds her own high, soaking up their objectifying gaze and exclaiming "ding dong" to herself as the most attractive pass by.

Read more: 'Bad Moms' Is What Happens When Men Attempt to Make a Feminist Movie

In addition to its protagonist's improved level of fitness, Bridget Jones's Baby has arrived in a different cultural and political climate than Diary did 15 years ago. In the intervening decade and a half, sexual politics have multiplied the kinds of relationships commonly recognized as normal; a certain brand of feminist rhetoric, or at least self-identifying label, has gone mainstream, making its way into pop culture and onto Beyoncé's stage; and the death of the romantic comedy has been declared and investigated. As a member of an outmoded genre, and in an era of pop feminism and fierce and instantaneous political dissection, Bridget Jones's Baby has a lot working against it, and its creators appear to have been well aware. Even as it portrays a newly confident woman, the movie itself sits uncomfortably in its self-presentation. Just as the original character Bridget wished to quit smoking at the same time that she wished for a cigarette, Bridget Jones's Baby wants its traditional marriage plot at the same time that it wants to appear hip to critiques of "family values." It wants an all-white cast at the same time that it wants to espouse a global consciousness. In a weak compromise that fails in both respects, Bridget Jones's Baby de-prioritizes romance and emotion in favor of eventfulness, and overt displays of social, cultural, and global hipness get walk-on roles as slogans and punchlines without affecting the movie's ultimately conservative narrative course.

Screengrab via YouTube

With the rom-com falling on hard times, producers who still wish to make movies in the genre have been hard-pressed to find new ways of constructing and marketing their plots—resulting in the creation of hybrid action– or fantasy–rom-coms, and in the newly minted genre of the "momcom," in which love is motivated only by an accidentally conceived baby. Romantic comedies that wish to succeed must compensate for their genre's demise by minimizing the extent to which romantic and emotional conflict serve as their driving narrative forces.

The conflict in Bridget Jones's Baby is, by and large, genetic. Bridget sleeps with two men in the course of a week—Jack Quant, a dating app mogul, and Mark Darcy, a human rights lawyer and Bridget's former fiancé—and gets pregnant, but doesn't know by whom. The entire plot is held together by the string-thin amniocentesis needle that could determine the child's paternity but which Bridget refuses to have inserted into her for fear of a small risk of a miscarriage (though her gynecologist recommended the amniocentesis procedure in the first place because of the larger risks of a "geriatric" pregnancy). All of the quandaries that might emerge from Bridget's uncertainty about her baby's father—concerning who Bridget wants the father to be, who would in fact make the better dad, which man Bridget loves more—are reduced to the single, quickly resolvable question of who the father, as a matter of fact, is, and Bridget's own feelings about the forthcoming baby are overshadowed by Jack and Mark's unlikely jubilation. Mark is going through a divorce and technically still married, but he tells Bridget that her pregnancy is "quite possibly the most wonderful piece of information I've ever heard in my life." Jack, after admitting on national television that he did not want children and was not looking for love, tells Bridget he knows she would be the "greatest possible mother" to his child.

Bridget Jones allows us to accept ourselves just the way we are—uninformed, uninterested, and concerned only with things that concern us.

An overall saturation of significant events—Bridget attends the funeral of her ex-boyfriend Daniel Cleaver; gets a new young boss who threatens her job security; goes to a huge music festival and sleeps with Jack Quant; becomes a godmother; sleeps with her ex; finds out she's pregnant; gets fired from her job after a royal fuck-up; delivers the baby; chooses Mark to be the father no matter the results of the paternity test; finds out that he is the father; and marries him—leaves little opportunity for anything like emotional connection, sexual tension, or intellectual rapport with either Jack or Mark to build or be conveyed to the audience. Much of the movie's work in conveying the characters' mutual attraction is accomplished instead with brief sex scenes in the of music videos, accompanied by thematically relevant songs. Bridget and Jack make love in their yurt to Ed Sheeran's "Take Me Into Your Loving Arms," and Bridget and Mark lock eyes across a crowded dance floor (a child's christening-turned-PG rave) and have sex to a song with the chorus line, "I wanna reignite our love." Bridget Jones's Baby's scrambling efforts to find popular success as a romantic comedy even after the genre's wane culminate in a movie that can't be anything but a rom-com, but which features little of the romantic conflict or spark that made the first movie so successful, and such a rom-com, in 2001.

Screengrab via YouTube

The movie also features various attempts to redeem itself from the genre of the romantic comedy, spurned for its provincialism, optimism, and anti-feminism, by demonstrating its political, cultural, and global savviness. Mark Darcy oversees the trial for the extradition of a radical feminist rock group tightly based on the Russian band Pussy Riot, whose chant "menstruation castration liberation" he describes as catchy. Bridget gives a rallying speech to her mother about the backwardness of "family values" and cites her own circumstance as an unmarried pregnant woman to garner her mother's sympathy. There are even occasional indications that Bridget Jones's script will diverge from the traditional marriage plot. In one instance, Bridget's mother reminds her that many women raise children on their own, pointing towards the possibility that Bridget will opt for single motherhood; at another moment, in the most implausible line in the movie, when Mark shows up late to the first birthing class, Bridget wonders in her diary, "Will Mark even turn up and engage in our polyamorous family?," pointing towards the possibility of an alternative family arrangement. But these nods to radical feminist discourse, liberal political positions, and non-nuclear families are no more than nods. They serve as discrete slogans that convince the audience of the movie's good politics without affecting its narrative course, which concludes, conventionally and predictably, with Bridget prancing down a hillside in her wedding gown, cradling a baby whose wobbling head could really use more support.

In an apparent, and weirdly deeply misguided, effort to appear worldly, moreover, Baby features not one but four references to genocide. In the first, during an interview with foreign secretary George Wilkins about the recently killed leader of a fictional ethnic group, Bridget is feeding questions to the interviewer through a mic, but then forgets to turn it off when she picks up a phone call from a friend who asks how Daniel's funeral was. Comedy ensues:

George Wilkins: His persecution of [the people of another ethnic group] amounted to genocide.
Interviewer: I mean I know he had his faults. He could be a massive asshole.
George Wilkins: I think the genocide... put him on the wrong side of history.
Interviewer: Well, at least he was never boring.

At the trial for the Pussy Riot-esque band's extradition, Mark Darcy mutters to a colleague that he is "looking forward to going back to some good old-fashioned genocide," and jokes to Bridget that dealing with the band has given him a "certain amount of sympathy for the totalitarian dictator who wishes to silence them." Later, when Bridget's friend brings her to a music festival where they will sleep in a yurt and tells Bridget that they're not camping but "glamping," Bridget responds with, "Calling him 'Gladolf Hitler' wouldn't suddenly make you forget all the unpleasantness." Finally, when a segment on Hard News isn't going well, the new boss threatens to cut to a reel of cats that look like Hitler. Hitler, Putin, and genocide are used for comedic effect as entities so blatantly bad that it is humorous to think otherwise. At one point Bridget exclaims that it's wild that we can be so unprepared for "something as complicated and important as having a baby or invading Iraq."

These jokes about distant genocides, totalitarian dictatorships, and unjustified wars appear to serve as a sort of ironic confession of the movie's own privileged perspective. Its attempt to posture as worldly works in the same way as its attempt to posture as culturally savvy. Sound bites of hipster modernity (ironic facial hair; mason jars; Instagram; hashtags; man buns; dating apps), sprinkled throughout the film, succeed only in making the movie relevant to people who feel isolated from such contemporary trends. When Bridget exclaims, "Hashtag: Let's do this" in a board meeting, she earns the eye-rolls of her younger coworkers, but garners the sympathy of a Twitter-confused older generation. Similarly, the movie's gestures towards global awareness succeed only in achieving relevance for those who feel isolated from the big bad distant lands of Russia, Iraq, and countries that have experienced genocide.

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In one of the film's only scenes with a person of color, Bridget encounters the name tag of a South Asian co-worker, Ariyaratna, freezes, and then proceeds to swallow the last part of his name over the several times that she attempts to say it. The women sitting in front of me in the movie theater found this hilarious and nodded their heads. They sympathized with Bridget's struggle; they recalled similar situations, presented with a foreign name they couldn't pronounce but knew, as educated, liberal women, that they should be able to. Later on, in the incident that Bridget gets fired over, she mistakes an Asian general for his chauffeur in yet another interview about genocide (because hard-hitting journalism, it seems, uniformly concerns genocide). Again, the heads in front of me bowed in sympathy.

Bridget Jones has always given women permission: to eat Ben and Jerry's, to be inconsistent about the gym, to make mistakes even while wishing you didn't. But in Baby, Bridget Jones no longer has many bad habits to enable in her audience. All that's left of the old fumbling Bridget is her clumsiness—she falls in the mud at the music festival not once but twice, losing a shoe both times, and leaves her bags irretrievably in the ATM cubicle—and her cultural insensitivity. In the first movie, Bridget had us nodding with relief when she confessed that she had gained a few pounds over the holidays. In Baby, Bridget Jones gives white women (the presumed audience) permission to mess up the pronunciation of foreign names and to be unable to tell two Asian men apart. She allows us to accept ourselves just the way we are—uninformed, uninterested, and concerned only with things that concern us—even as we give a speech to our mums about the backwardness of family values and the importance of multiculturalism. Occasional racist slips are made out to be embarrassing in the same way as slips in the mud are, and Bridget forgives us for them both.