All posts by One Guys Opinion

Dr. Frank Swietek is Associate Professor of History at the University of Dallas, where he is regarded as a particularly tough grader. He has been the film critic of the University News since 1988, and has discussed movies on air at KRLD-AM (Dallas) and KOMO-AM (Seattle). He is also the Founding President of the Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics' Association, a group of print and broadcast journalists covering film in the Metroplex area, and was a charter member of the Society of Texas Film Critics. Dr. Swietek is a member of the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS). He was instrumental in the creation of the Lone Star Awards, which, through the efforts of the Dallas-Fort Worth Regional Film Commission, give recognition annually to the best feature films and television programs produced in Texas.

BRIDGET JONES’S DIARY

There has been some complaint among Brits about the casting of American Renee Zellweger in the lead role of “Bridget Jones’s Diary,” but a viewing of the adaptation of Helen Fielding’s novel (penned by Fielding, Richard Curtis and Andrew Davies) shows that there’s no basis for the criticism: Zellweger manages the necessary accent as well as Gwyneth Paltrow ever did (and as well as most English performers do when they’re affecting an American speech pattern). The real question is why any actress of either nationality would have wanted the part. The book was apparently very successful, but at least as transferred to the screen, it’s about as prefabricated a romantic comedy as one could imagine–an extended “Cathy” comic strip folded into the old reliable plot (familiar from John Hughes’ high school movies, among hundreds of others) about the rather dim girl who allows herself to be seduced and jilted by an obvious cad while Mr. Right lurks perpetually in the background, all too obvious to everybody but her. The outcome is a foregone conclusion, of course, but there are lots of tears, reversals and assorted quirkiness before we lumber our way to it. Despite the slickness with which it’s been made and Zellweger’s obvious dedication, “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is as a formulaic an excuse for a chick flick as you’re likely to find.

In this incarnation of Plot B-1, Bridget Jones is a slightly overweight and, it must be admitted, pretty dense secretary in a London publishing house. As she tells us in numbingly cute narration, she’s fully aware that her boss Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) is a scoundrel when it comes to women, but in a move that’s close to emotional suicide (undoubtedly brought on by a lack of “self-esteem,” which in this case seems pretty deserved), she allows herself to fall for the guy. Meanwhile she dismisses as a potential beau a scowling human-rights lawyer with an Austenesque name, Mark Darcy (Colin Firth), whom she’s known from childhood, despite the fact that his gloomy attitude all too clearly masks affection for her. The trajectory of the plot is hardly surprising: Bridget has a fling with her boss which turns out badly, she changes jobs to supposedly humorous effect, she links up with the attorney again, Cleaver intervenes one last time, and she eventually opts for Darcy–only to find that he might now be lost to her. Needless to say, he’s not. A picture like this couldn’t exist without a phony happy ending.

As though the central elements weren’t formulaic enough, they’re surrounded by others which are equally so. The heroine has to have eccentric, loquacious chums (here three of them) who pop up periodically to commiserate with her and garner a few cheap laughs. She also has parents going through a bad patch in their marriage–a sharp-tongued mum who goes off with a TV pitchman and becomes his on-air assistant (a completely implausible circumstance), and a quiet, thoughtful dad–as well as the inevitable embarrassing uncle. And she must endure an obligatory succession of humiliating moments–God help us, we even have to watch as, joining klutziness with a lack of culinary skill, she makes a horrendous mess in her kitchen trying desperately to prepare a simple meal! (She winds up, of course, with pots boiling over and blotches of food splattered all over her apron.)

Through it all, Zellweger is an exceptionally good sport. She put on a few pounds for the role, it’s said, and she looks convincingly plump, especially in several extremely unflattering scenes when she has to show an ample amount of flesh (nothing too revealing, of course): a final shot in which she’s standing very scantily-clad in an (obviously computer-generated) snow shower is a case in point. And she squeezes her sweet little face into an agonized grimace as often as required–which, given the twists of the plot, is pretty frequently (though given the quality of the material, perhaps it wasn’t a reaction so hard for her to manage). The feebleness of “Bridget Jones’s Diary” certainly isn’t her fault. Nor is it Hugh Grant’s. He seems to be having a fine time acting the utter rotter; indeed, he’s deliciously slimy even in the inevitable scene in which poor, dopey Bridget finds him with another woman. Firth is like a mobile stick of wood as the good man who pines after Bridget (though why he does so, to be perfectly honest, is hard to fathom); but it’s not his fault the role is a cipher. The supporting players fare even worse. Gemma Jones has to suffer a succession of horrid closeups as Bridget’s mom, while Jim Broadbent is completely wasted as her dad; he has one scene in which, in bringing a cigarette up to his mouth for a puff, his hand bumps into his nose–and the flub wasn’t even reshot. James Callis, Sally Phillips and Shirley Henderson are encouraged to mug and roll their eyes entirely too much as the heroine’s faithful friends. And poor Celia Imrie is reduced to a series of smirks and ticks as Darcy’s partner and supposed intended. Paul Brooke and Felicity Montague are little more than props as offuce colleagues looking on disapprovingly at Bridget’s shenanigans, and Embeth Davidtz has what amounts to a statuesque walk-on as the American girl Cleaver fools around with.

The cast’s difficulties have to be laid mostly at the doorstep of first-time director Sharon Maguire, previously known for her documentaries; she lacks the lightness of touch material of this sort needs if it’s going to have any chance to charm rather than depress. Perhaps the original book, which has become a sort of pop phenomenon, has some quality the adaptation has lost; but a movie has to be taken on its own terms, and as such “Bridget Jones’s Diary” is devoid of the slightest shred of originality or inventiveness, and its tired storyline isn’t enlivened even by the efforts of an able cast. If it weren’t for its British accents, you might confuse it with equally dim American chick flicks like the recent “Someone Like You.” It’s a shaggy-girl story that should have stayed on the printed page.

KINGDOM COME

Innocuous and sporadically diverting but also formulaic and undistinguished, “Kingdom Come” represents a step forward for director Doug McHenry (who previously co-helmed “House Party 2” and then went solo on the dreadful “Jason’s Lyric”), but–alas–the progress is distressingly slight. Based on a play called “Dearly Departed” by scripters David Dean Bottrell and Jessie Jones (and, as filmed, still very stagey), the picture resembles one of those ensemble pieces that might work onstage in church halls and community theatres, but would be hopelessly out of place on Broadway; half sitcom and half mawkish drama, it’s enlivened by an able cast, but would probably be more at home on the tube than the big screen.

The film is basically an episodic tale of the squabbles and reconciliations within a family that gathers to “mourn,” if that’s the word, the loss of one of its more disagreeable members, an irascible patriarch named Bud; needless to say, there are many lingering animosities that need to be laid to rest and old scores that require settlement before the funeral in which the picture culminates. The fact that the Slocumb family happens in this case to be black is notable from a historical perspective, perhaps, but it doesn’t add much to the inventiveness of the proceedings. The various family figures aren’t so much characters as they are the embodiment of solitary characteristics: one brother, Ray Bud (LL Cool J), is the recovering alcoholic, with a wife, Lucille (Vivica A. Fox), who’s wonderfully good-natured but desperate to get pregnant; the other, Junior (Anthony Anderson), is a failed entrepreneur whose wife Charisse (Jada Pinkett Smith) berates him for his failings (and suspects him of infidelity). Junior and Charisse have kids, but they’re little more than anonymous brats. Ray and Junior’s mother, the recently-widowed Raynelle (Whoopi Goldberg) is a quiet, reflective sort cognizant of her husband’s flaws and desiring everything carried off without turmoil. There’s also Bud’s sister Marguerite (Loretta Devine), a Bible-thumping proselytizer, and her ne’er-do-well son Royce (Darius McCrary); Juanita (Toni Braxton), a relative who’s married into wealth and condescends to everyone else; and Ray and Junior’s younger sister Delightful (Masasa), whose main interest in life is food. Added to the mix at the wake are lisping Reverend Hooker (Cedric the Entertainer), snooty brother-and-sister undertakers (Dominic Hoffman and Patrice Moncell), and Ray’s drunkard of a boss Clyde (Richard Gant), who’s easy with passes at women–among others too numerous to mention.

The premise obviously sets the stage for plenty of family quarrels and accusations, followed by the obligatory apologies and touchingly comic moments of forgiveness and joy. It’s all utterly schematic and predictable, since in a narrative of this sort it’s essential that every character come out looking good; the final twenty minutes, set at the funeral itself, is like a series of curtain calls in which each major member of the cast steps center-stage to do a riff that will earn laughter, tears, or both from an appreciative audience. The sense of calculation is crushingly palpable.

Still, the performers are agreeable enough to make the film tolerable if unexceptional. LL Cool J, Anderson and Fox are all relatively restrained and likable; Pinkett Smith comes off strident and loud, but that’s the nature of her character. Devine (whom you might recognize as the manic teacher on “Boston Public”) brings a bit of humanity to Marguerite, but Darius McCrary is amateurish as her boy (and his final speech is embarrassing, as well as implausible). Goldberg once again does her earth-mother routine as the not-so-grieving widow. Cedric the Entertainer (as opposed to Cedric the Plumber, one supposes), who was so deft in “The Original Kings of Comedy,” is less successful here, not only because the lisp is hardly a great comedy tool, but because in the big finale he has to do a eulogy while enduring serious gastric distress–a bit that was undoubtedly meant to be side-splittingly funny but comes across as somewhat crude (one of the few examples of such below-the-belt humor to be found in the script, happily).

Perhaps “Kingdom Come” would have made the grade if it had been not only more sharply written but more dextrously directed. McHenry’s helming isn’t exactly sloppy, but he does have a habit of letting scenes go slightly flat and run on too long. The result is a picture not unlike one of those family gatherings that you don’t look forward to attending overmuch and are a little too happy to see end.