Jonesing For Miss Bridget

It's late July in England, and it's been as hot as 120 degrees on the set of "Bridget Jones's Diary." Today, gratefully, the heat has broken on the soundstage. It's 106 degrees. The frazzled, lovelorn singleton works in publishing--actually, "works" might be too strong a word--and it turns out that reproducing the flat, fluorescent glare of an office is something of a special effect, requiring three times the usual lighting. Between takes, Renee Zellweger clumps about un-self-consciously in black stiletto boots, her cheeks flushed from the heat, her hair tumbling out of a barrette, her nylons pushed down to her knees. "The boys won't know," she whispers, in her newly acquired British lilt. The temperature must be getting to Zellweger because when asked if she's nervous about her accent, the native Texan launches into a standard-issue, PR-savvy reply --"I don't think about it," etc.--then suddenly puts her head in her hands and wails, "Oh, God, I hope it doesn't suck!" Nearby, Hugh Grant-- who plays Bridget's rakish boss, Daniel Cleaver--paces alone, scarfing down a chocolate bar and cooling his face with a plastic pocket fan. Grant admits to being grumpy--and to having something of a beef with Zellweger. "I'm always the set bitch, and Renee won't join in," he says. "I can't find anyone that she will say a mean word about."

After "Bridget Jones" opens this week, it will be harder still to find anyone who'll say a mean word about her. "Bridget," directed by first-timer Sharon Maguire, is a tremendously funny and touching adaptation of Helen Fielding's best seller about one woman's quest to lose 20 pounds. To stop drinking and smoking. To stop pining for a boyfriend. To find a boyfriend, for God's sake--and not die alone in her apartment only to be found months later, partially eaten by dogs. When Zellweger was cast, the English papers were outraged that a quintessentially British character--adorable not in spite of her flaws but because of them--had been entrusted to an American actress lithe as a gymnast. "Of all the clunking, Hollywood idiocy," wrote London's Evening Standard, adding that casting Zellweger as Bridget Jones was like casting Jude Law as the Elephant Man. Zellweger gained 20 pounds for the part, and flaunts her hard-won cellulite in the movie. (She and the crew had a running joke on the set: "Are we bringing out the bum cam today?") As for the accent... Yes, there's a weird cognitive dissonance the first time you hear Zellweger speak in posh British tones. Still, she's so disarming and so deeply Bridget--gliding between mortifying slapstick and pathos--that she's entirely won you over by the time the credits have rolled. The opening credits.

"Bridget Jones" begins on New Year's Day, as our hungover heroine trudges to an odious party with her parents. Bridget's mother (Gemma Jones) immediately shoves her at the nearest bachelor, the cold, diffident barrister Mark Darcy (Colin Firth). Bridget blathers. Darcy recoils in horror. And Bridget retreats to her flat in London, where she plays air drums to teary pop songs. Fortunately, Bridget's devilish boss (Grant) takes notice of her, and they launch a raucous romance, as Darcy watches from the wings.

"Bridget" distills Fielding's novel into a conventional love triangle, and the pacing can be rough. (The hyperactive pop score suggests nervousness in the editing room.) But the script--partly written by Richard Curtis, who wrote "Notting Hill"--is killingly funny, and Zellweger's costars all shine. Grant, in particular, does a hilarious, lascivious turn. One night, he lays Bridget down on the rug and enumerates all the articles of clothing he's about to relieve her of, including her unsightly, tummy-controlling undergarments: "Now, these are very silly little boots, Jones. And this is a very silly little dress--and, oh me, absolutely enormous panties!"

Months after "Bridget" has wrapped, Zellweger pulls up to a restaurant in Los Angeles in a black SUV, smiling and waving through the windshield. She seems scattered today, but genuinely warm and inquisitive--less like a Hollywood starlet, thank God, and more like a really, really cool waitress. Zellweger, 31, grew up in Katy, Texas, the daughter of a Norwegian nurse and a Swiss engineer. She's spoken to NEWSWEEK regularly over the years, and there are only two ways she's plainly changed since her breakthrough in 1996's "Jerry Maguire." One is that she says awesome, killer and dude less. The other is that she waves away more questions, not just about personal matters, such as her breakup with Jim Carrey ("It's not something that I really talk about. You wouldn't tell me"), but about professional ones as well, such as the mystical place "Jerry Maguire" has in her heart. ("It was one of the great gifts in my life--and not for professional reasons. That was the smallest part of it." Then what were the personal reasons? "No." What do you mean, no? "No." After all that buildup? "I know. Isn't it such a letdown?")

What emphatically has not changed about Zellweger is her idiosyncratic taste. She's careered through the genres like a free electron, appearing in films both touching ("One True Thing") and twisted ("Me, Myself & Irene"), surprisingly powerful ("The Whole Wide World") and powerfully bad ("The Bachelor"). Another thing that hasn't changed is how damned self-effacing she is. When did she first know she was actually going to make a living as an actress? "A month ago--at the Golden Globes." Zellweger won a Globe for her riveting turn as a deluded soap-opera fan in "Nurse Betty." "It was a very profound moment," she says of the award, though she was in the bathroom when her name was called. "It made me realize that I had a reason to be there that night--that I wasn't crashing the party and about to be found out and shown the door."

"Bridget" should confirm Zellweger's staying power. Director Maguire, a friend of Fielding's and the inspiration for Bridget's voluble buddy Sharon, says she cast Zellweger because, among other things, she made her laugh the minute she met her. Maguire, by the way, verifies Grant's report that Zellweger was sweetness and light during production--and that Grant was the "set bitch." "Him and Colin are both very campy," she says. "They called each other 'Mrs. Firth' and 'Mrs. Grant.' Oh, how's Mrs. Grant this morning? We had a running joke about whose turn it was for a hissy fit, and the boys would fight it out. It's my turn for a tanty! Renee didn't have any tantrums. There's no bulls--t to her. She's got no vanity. She just got on with the job."

So sue her for being sweet. After politely answering questions for hours, Zellweger heads out of the cozy cafe. The waiter knows her and likes her, so, during the interview, without telling her, he's gone out to put quarters in her parking meter. Zellweger is touched-- but it turns out that a policeman is writing her a ticket anyway. Zellweger dashes up to the cop, beaming nervously. "Did you already get me?" The cop nods indifferently. Zellweger points at the reporter and jokes, "It's his fault! I was talking to him!" The cop nods again. "Yeah," he says. "It's always the guy's fault." Zellweger can't charm the cop in the middle of the street. In a movie theater, he wouldn't stand a chance.