Full-Witted

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With her ruddy skin, pulpy bosom and self-abasing zinger wit, she's so--well, so very English. One glance at Houston's own Renee Zellweger, and all anxiety about the casting of an American as Britain's favorite wounded bird of the '90s vanishes. (Hey, if Vivien Leigh could play Scarlett O'Hara...) She fits in, and stands out, perfectly. And as the plot of Bridget Jones's Diary ripens, and two handsome men--rapacious Daniel Cleaver (Hugh Grant) and dull Mark Darcy (Colin Firth)--tumble vagrantly into her heart, Zellweger reveals, as in a soul's striptease, Bridget's appeal. Inside this "verbally incontinent spinster" (as Darcy calls her), a brilliant vamp is aching to be set free.

The diary form, established by Helen Fielding in an Independent column and then two blithe best sellers, is smartly adapted in the script by Fielding, Andrew Davies (BBC's Pride and Prejudice) and Richard Curtis (Blackadder, Notting Hill) --a virtual conglomerate of middle-class Brit humor. It gives good lines and cunning motives to the stars, especially the newly gaunt Grant, who's irresistible as a randy cad. And, except for a catastrophic third act that comprises about 14 endings, two transatlantic flights and a long, clumsy fight scene, director Sharon Maguire nicely juggles the slapstick and heartbreak.

For this is a very romantic romantic comedy. That Firth, who was the dark dreamboat Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, plays dull dreamboat Darcy here simply underlines the comedy-of-manners connection between Helen Fielding's work and Jane Austen's. This, for the most part, is a tale of comic good sense and poignant sensibility.