Seeing Bridget Jones’s Baby is like reconnecting with an old friend you thought and hoped would have her life together by now. It’s not her fault. That’s just what life keeps throwing her way. In her case, life is the plot novelist Helen Fielding and filmmakers like Sharon Maguire keep serving up. Each movie forces her to awkwardly relearn the same lessons: to roll with the punches, have self-confidence, and be happy with who she is whether or not there’s a man in her life. Fifteen years have passed since the socially awkward Bridget (Renée Zellweger) first strode on screen in the sweet and charming Bridget Jones’s Diary, the story of sad single woman in London who can’t decide between two rakish men, a slick cad (Hugh Grant) and a cold, but secretly warm-hearted, stuffed shirt (Colin Firth). The sequel, 2004’s Edge of Reason, reset the relationships to have the same men fighting over her in much the same emotional beats. At least Baby makes three a slightly different dynamic, finding Bridget a new fling and a nine-month surprise growing throughout.
For the better part of an hour the movie gets by on nothing more than the sheer pleasure of seeing the twinkly-eyed Zellweger back on the screen. She hasn’t had a role in six years, and hasn’t been Bridget, her most famous character, in over a decade. So when a now-43-year-old Jones walks into a sad, lonely birthday convinced her work life will be her satisfying replacement for romantic travails, it feels awfully nice to have her driven and desirous of nothing more than self-improvement and self-care. Alas, it’s too good to be true, as a hoookup at a music festival with a mysterious billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and an unexpected rekindling of passions with her old love (Firth) leave her pregnant. Once more, two men fight for her affections, this time with the ticking time bomb of a DNA test (which she decides to make post-partum instead of an amniocentesis) adding an extra layer of squirmy comic tension.
That’s a decent start to a good Bridget reunion, progressing her story slightly, creating new conflict, upping the stakes, and inviting new handsome middle-aged men into her world. Now she’s committed to having a baby (she bristles at being called a “geriatric mother,” but also recognizes this might be her one chance at pregnancy) and settling into a new aspect of life. To help her do so, she faces the Solomon-like task of figuring out which man gets to raise the baby as her co-parent. Will it be the man she has loved, or the man she could love? Not a bad question. This certainly isn’t a calamitous late sequel. But it lacks its original nimble spark. Running a galumphing 122 minutes, co-writers Fielding, Dan Mazer (Dirty Grandpa), and the great Emma Thompson have simply not enough plot or charm to last. Especially lumpy, there are underfed subplots, forced short cameos for familiar faces past (though Jim Broadbent never hurts), and a central farce with far too much dead air for how urgent its mysteries are. Bridget’s dithering about informing one prospective father of the other, and indeed her confusion about whether biology should inform her choice at all, creates a long, awkward stasis.
Beyond the wheel-spinning at its center, the movie can’t quite place Bridget in a believable 2016. There’s tepid social media commentary and millennial bashing in the form a new team brought in to run the newsroom where Bridget works. (A few exhausted swipes at man buns, live streams, and hashtags aren’t as nervy as the movie seems to think.) Similarly, an endless gag in which Bridget doesn’t recognize Ed Sheeran falls flat, but not as deadly behind-the-times as an enthusiastic dance floor “Gangnam Style” discussion. What is this? 2012? Ditto the recurring references to a court case and subsequent protest parade concerning a Russian women’s punk band. These are weak distractions from the questions at hand. Who is the father? Who is best for Bridget? Will she finally get her life together? All is answered, and reasonably satisfactorily if you ask me. And Zellweger and Firth are good enough at selling the long history and misty-eyed potential in their relationship. But the distended phoniness around them is more than I could take.