As a lifelong lover of the much-maligned romantic comedy, I’ve always found it funny when people dismiss the genre as being too “unrealistic.” Those detractors aren’t necessarily wrong—they’re just mistaking a feature for a bug. Rom-coms aren’t aiming for realism and failing. They’re purposefully utilizing a heightened tone to tell fantastical stories about the relatable concept of falling in love. Rom-coms are to romance what James Bond films are to spies, both offering exhilarating escapism to an audience that isn’t necessarily looking to be reminded of the realities of life, love, or physics.
That said, if the term “rom-com” immediately conjures up images of klutzy women having contrived meet-cutes that lead to formulaic happily ever afters, you largely have the 1990s and early 2000s to thank for that. The romantic comedies of the 1930s gave us fast-talking men and faster-talking women. The ’50s and ’60s turned romantic comedies into colorful musicals. The ’80s sent its rom-coms back to high school. We’re currently in an era that favors rom-coms with a more naturalistic, even slightly somber tone—movies like Obvious Child and The Big Sick. But the broader cultural conception of a rom-com—the kind of formula SNL was mocking in this parody trailer for a Black Widow movie—was established during the genre’s most recent heyday at the turn of the 21st century.
Between 1990’s Pretty Woman and 2010’s Valentine’s Day (to measure the time in Garry Marshall films), glossy, big-budget, star-studded rom-coms ruled the box office. It was the age when Julia Roberts, Hugh Grant, and Meg Ryan were being directed by genre giants like Marshall, Nora Ephron, and Richard Curtis. They eventually gave way to the likes of Kate Hudson, Adam Sandler, Drew Barrymore, Jennifer Lopez, Matthew McConaughey, and Katherine Heigl, as well as writer-director Nancy Meyers. Whatever your feelings toward rom-coms, they were likely shaped by the films released during this period: Sleepless In Seattle. My Best Friend’s Wedding. How To Lose A Guy In 10 Days. 27 Dresses.
To begin this column, in which we’ll hop through time to explore the history of the rom-com, it makes sense to start with one released smack dab in the middle of that heyday, and one that’s a paragon of the genre: 2001’s Bridget Jones’s Diary. Based on Helen Fielding’s best-selling, acclaimed 1996 novel of the same title (it won British Book Of The Year in 1998), the highly anticipated film arrived after a decade of big-budget romantic comedies had made audiences familiar with the beats, but before their tropes had been completely solidified—something that, for better or for worse, Bridget Jones helped to do. In fact, the movie’s trailer plays beat-for-beat like the kind of thing that Black Widow parody was mocking. Yet it’s remarkable how little its clichéd trailer does justice to the sweet, funny, empathetic spirit of the film.
My grand theory when it comes to rom-coms is that the best center first and foremost on character growth—not romance. That’s especially true of Bridget Jones’s Diary. Bridget (Renée Zellweger) is an accident-prone 32-year-old who can’t seem to get her career, her body, or—most importantly—her love life in order. So after a particularly embarrassing start to the New Year in which she butts heads with awkward, aloof barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), Bridget decides to turn her life around. She starts a diary to hold herself accountable, but it’s not long before she’s repeating old patterns and falling into bed with the “office scoundrel,” her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant). Eventually, however, Bridget finds her confidence, while simultaneously realizing she may have misjudged Mark after all.
If all that sounds familiar, it could be because it’s loosely the plot of Jane Austen’s Pride And Prejudice, with Bridget as Lizzy Bennet, Daniel as George Wickham (albeit one who cheats on Bridget rather than eloping with her sister), and Mark as a literal Mr. Darcy—a character Firth had actually played in the beloved 1995 Pride And Prejudice miniseries. But it also probably sounds familiar because virtually every rom-com that followed would incorporate at least some element of the Bridget Jones formula, often to diminishing returns. So things that felt charmingly original at the time, like Bridget’s drunken and hilarious wallowing about her perpetual singlenesss to Eric Carmen’s “All By Myself,” now feel like worn-out tropes.
But if elements introduced in Bridget Jones have gone on to be misused or overused in subsequent rom-coms, they feel purposeful and funny here. Like most rom-coms, Bridget Jones isn’t aiming for realism (there’s a rainy fistfight between Mark and Daniel that’s literally set to “It’s Raining Men”), but it is clearly aiming to add some relatability to the rom-com fantasy. In particular, director Sharon Maguire has a keen eye for capturing the ridiculous amount of effort it takes for women to appear “effortlessly” glamorous. One quick, insightful sequence sums up society’s contradicting standards of femininity, as Bridget must choose between wearing sexy lingerie (“Most attractive at crucial moment,” she notes) and slimming shapewear (“Chances of reaching crucial moment greatly increased by wearing these scary stomach-holding-in pants”).
Delivering a wonderfully unselfconscious performance of a deeply self-conscious woman, Renée Zellweger is the biggest key to Bridget Jones’ success. Though Zellweger had previously charmed audiences in 1996’s Jerry Maguire, the British press was initially aghast at the idea of an American actor bringing such an iconic British character to life. (Other actors considered for the role include Helena Bonham Carter, Cate Blanchett, Rachel Weisz, Toni Collette, and Kate Winslet.) To prove them wrong, the native Texan gained 20 pounds, spent three weeks working “undercover” at a British publishing firm, and collaborated with dialect coach Barbara Berkery to create what’s still considered one of the best British accents ever delivered by an American actor. (Zellweger even kept her accent throughout the shoot. When Firth finally heard her speak without it, he joked, “She’s now wandering around using what I think is a rather unconvincing Texas accent.”)
In doing so, Zellweger turned in an all-time great rom-com performance, one for which she was rightly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar. In Zellweger’s hands, Bridget is both lovable and deeply flawed—and not just in a “let’s make our impossibly glamorous female lead vaguely clumsy in hopes of making her relatable” kind of way. Bridget’s wry, witty internal monologue is juxtaposed with her inability to be anywhere near as put-together in real-life. “I am the intellectual equal of everyone else here,” she mentally reassures herself at a fancy book launch, before utterly failing at making erudite small talk. All of this contributes to Bridget having an actual personality, which is something lesser rom-coms often fail to give their female leads while striving to make them universally appealing.
One of the reasons I’ve always been drawn to the romantic comedy is because it so consistently centers on women. Pick a random action film, political drama, or biopic and it’s a crapshoot as to whether it will feature even one well-developed female character. Pick a random rom-com, however, and you’ll almost certainly get a female protagonist, or at least one woman in a major role. True, the genre has a spotty track record when it comes to actually writing those female characters well. But the best rom-coms—like Bridget Jones—care about the everyday lives of women in a way so few other mainstream genres do consistently. Thanks to its slightly meandering, year-in-the-life storytelling, Bridget Jones has time for subplots about Bridget’s parents, her friends, and her career. One of its most satisfying scenes doesn’t even involve romance; it’s about Bridget triumphantly quitting her job while telling Daniel to shove it.
And when it comes to the romance, Bridget Jones succeeds by pairing Zellweger with two great male co-stars whose performances brought some interesting meta elements to the film. By 2001, audiences were used to seeing Hugh Grant play the bumbling but endearing romantic lead in movies like Four Weddings And A Funeral (1994) and Notting Hill (1999), so it was fun to see him subvert that shtick—one people were arguably already tired of—by playing a sleazy antagonist for once. And even though Bridget announces from the offset that Daniel is a dick, there are times when, nevertheless, he still seems like an appealing choice for her—mostly because he’s being played by Hugh Grant.
As Mark Darcy, meanwhile, Colin Firth got to even more directly riff on what was then his most iconic role. As a modern-day version of Pride And Prejudice’s Mr. Darcy, Firth emphasizes Mark’s awkwardness more so than his broodiness, which only makes his gradual transformation into the man of Bridget’s dreams all the sweeter. In the film’s best scene, Mark finally expresses his affection for Bridget by explaining simply, “I like you very much. Just as you are.”
So much of the experience of being a woman is about being made to feel perpetually inadequate—of being judged by others, then facing even harsher critiques from yourself. Bridget Jones understands this, which is why its romantic hero isn’t the dashing knight who sweeps you off your feet; he’s slightly awkward, and he likes you warts and all. The film doesn’t get too precious about it, either. When Bridget tells her friends what Darcy said to her, they swoon and mock it relentlessly—another moment that feels entirely true-to-life.
Bridget Jones isn’t entirely flawless. It still exists in a fantasyland where sexual advances from your boss are flirty, fun, and desired. Also, for all the casting uproar that spurred Zellweger to gain 20 pounds for the role, Bridget is still objectively thin. She’s also young, white, financially stable, straight, cis, and able-bodied—qualities that most rom-com protagonists seem to share, but which plenty of real-life women don’t. It’s certainly not exempt from the problems of representation in romantic comedies, which raises questions about who gets to see themselves as the heroine (questions I plan on digging into throughout this column). Yet compared to the egregious missteps other rom-coms make—including actually having their leading ladies end up with the Daniel Cleaver–esque asshole, while never recognizing them as such—Bridget Jones introduced a refreshing relatability to the genre, especially amid the heightened, comedic tone that defined so many of its late-’90s/early 2000s contemporaries.
Though there have been plenty of great rom-coms in the intervening years, I’m not sure any ever captured this particular balance quite as well—not even the other Bridget Jones films. As 2004’s universally panned Bridget Jones: The Edge Of Reason and 2016’s slightly better received Bridget Jones’s Baby proved, the Bridget Jones formula isn’t really equipped to answer the question “What happens after happily ever after?” Like a lot of comedy sequels, the franchise kept undoing the progress made by its character in order to tell the same story over and over; Edge Of Reason brought back Daniel so he and Bridget could have an almost-fling, while Bridget Jones’s Baby replaced Hugh Grant with Patrick Dempsey as the other man vying for Bridget’s affections. But though the third installment has its charms, it only diminishes Bridget and Mark’s story to keep throwing them back into love triangles. The original Bridget Jones’s Diary was about Bridget and Mark realizing that, against all odds, they’re actually perfect for one another. And more importantly, it was about Bridget learning, first and foremost, to love herself. There’s no need to keep retreading that territory just to reach the same conclusion.
So I prefer to leave Bridget Jones the way her first film does: with Bridget kissing Mark Darcy in the snow while two older women look on, scandalized by the tiger-striped underwear she wears to chase him down the street. It’s a classic romantic fantasy balanced by that relatability; even Bridget’s fairy-tale moment comes with a healthy dose of public embarrassment. It’s a finale, and a film, that timelessly encapsulates the best of what the romantic comedy has to offer. In other words, it’s damn near perfect. Just as it is.
Next time: Bringing Up Baby and the rom-com’s love of physical comedy.