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Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason ** 1/2 (Out of four)

Starring Renee Zellweger, Colin Firth, Hugh Grant, Jim Broadbent, Jacinda Barrett.

Directed by Beeban Kidron.

108 minutes. Rated R for language and some sexual content.

The lovable British singleton's insecurities get the better of her and she finds herself again single and again trying to win the heart of the dashing Mr. Darcy. Opens Friday in area theaters.

When we last left Bridget Jones, she was kissing the man of her dreams on a snowy London street corner wearing nothing but a sweater, sneakers and animal-print panties. An odd costume to be sure, but all we in the audience could feel was relief that Bridget had finally landed a decent boyfriend.

We knew Mark Darcy would be the stabilizing force her scattered life needed. We were sure the self-doubting Bridget would blossom under the rays of his love and become all the things she wrote in her diary that she wanted to be -- a confident, poised, career-oriented nonsmoker who consumes a reasonable number of alcohol units and calories and goes to the gym more often than she steps on a scale.

Now we get to find out how happily-ever-after turns out in "Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason," the sequel to the worldwide hit 2001's "Bridget Jones's Diary."

The good news is that relationships -- even with stuffy yet handsome barristers -- don't transform a girl. The bad news is that, well, relationships don't transform a girl. Bridget Jones, as played by the squinty, temporarily zaftig Renee Zellweger, is the same loopy, neurotic singleton as ever.

Her wacky schtick was cute for one movie. Three years later, Bridget comes off as an out-of-control perennial adolescent who's crossed the line from irresponsible to self-destructive. The titular Everygirl has gone from endearing to tiresome.

It's a difficult task for Director Beeban Kidron and the writers of "The Edge of Reason" -- keeping us on the side of the unlucky-in-love-but-it's-almost-always-herLine is overdrawn -own-fault Londoner. This time, they mixed an unbecoming and irritating blend of "lovable" and "loser."

The filmmakers' idea of smart comedy is to bury their chipper heroine under a heap of embarrassments. After a funny opening scene - where Bridget and Mark Darcy (Colin Firth) hold hands and swing in a circle on a hilltop as "The Sound of Music" plays - a skydiving Bridget lands in a steaming pen full of rutting pigs for a segment she's filming for "Wake Up, Britain," the TV show she works for. So, mere minutes into the new film, Kidron has already rehashed the silliest bit from "Diary" - the sight of Bridget's ample bottom as she slides down a fireman's pole. Only this time Bridget's bum is coming at us from 10,000 feet.

All the disaster to come is foreshadowed in the too-good-to-be-true moments Bridget and Mark share. As she stares at her sleeping Mr. Darcy, she muses, triumphantly, "Bridget Jones is a love pariah no more!" A sweet scene has Bridget dressing under a sheet because "I don't want you to see any of my wobbly bits."

The idyllic calm is shattered when two temptations appear - Rebecca (Jacinda Barrett), Mark's brainy, leggy colleague, and Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant), a womanizing heartthrob and Bridget's former boss and lover.

Like Bridget, the slick Daniel has transitioned from book publishing to television. He's the host of "The Smooth Guide" series of travel programs - "Making culture bearable," is his cynical tagline.

Rebecca is unfortunately present at Bridget's every mishap and mix-up - when she bursts into a meeting of human rights lawyers (over and over), when she thanks Mark for a terrific shag while he's got her on speakerphone, when she skis down a mountain backwards, when she shows up at a formal law dinner with garish makeup smeared all over her face.

Bridget's insecurities get the better of her, and she finds herself on her own again, just in time for her and Daniel to go to Thailand together to tape a "Smooth Guide" episode.

Accompanying her is Shazzer (Sally Phillips), one of Bridget's much more grown-up friends. While Bridget - who sports a constantly surprised puss the entire movie - falls under Daniel's smooth spell yet again, Shazzer frolicks with a hippie traveler who plants heroin in their luggage.

This lands Bridget in a Thai prison, where she lends out her hot pink bra in exchange for cigarettes and teaches the hookers the words to "Like a Virgin." (This is only slightly more believable than the prison stay depicted in Helen Fielding's novel. In the book, Bridget delights in all the weight she loses while waiting to be rescued from the frightening foreign hell hole.)

She does make it out and you can probably guess who provided the legal assistance. It's not all happily-back-together yet, though. What's needed is more humiliation, so Bridget chases down Mark while "Crazy in Love" thumps on the soundtrack. Being crazy in love is too close to being just plain crazy. Bridget really needs to dial it down.

Zellweger goes along with all this insanity, losing fans left and right as she runs through London in the rain, her bosoms nearly exposed, her dignity a distant memory. Jim Broadbent and Gemma Jones more than happily return to play her daffy parents. Firth looks like nothing so much as a large piece of British furniture in this sequel - perhaps trying to distance himself and preserve as much of his reputation as possible.

The only actor not besmirched by all this folderol is Grant, who manages to get sexier every time he plays the untrustworthy scoundrel.

The saving grace of all this is that Fielding hasn't written another book featuring Bridget Jones. So this time we really can believe she'll finally settle down and leave her inner drama queen behind her.


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