For those who aren’t familiar with the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, author Jeff Kinney’s so-called “cartoon novel” series has sold somewhere in the vicinity of 24 million copies. Each title of the series executes the same gimmick, that is, a fictional journal written (in childish handwriting upon blue lined paper) by titular “wimpy kid” character Greg Heffley, a sixth-grader learning to navigate the social vacuum of middle school. As reading material, it’s undemanding stuff but succeeds through a dryly observant narrator as well as amusing stick-figure drawings, which serve to randomly punctuate the miseries of middle school. Since there’s more than one book of this series, the time must have seemed ripe for a prospective movie franchise.
Or something like that.
Director Thor Freudenthal, just as in his recent Hotel For Dogs, jumps immediately into the action of Greg’s humiliating world and attempts to really get inside these kids’ heads. Generally speaking, the story competently deals with middle school as a purgatorial holding tank filled with same-aged adolescents that physically develop at vastly different rates. Yet, for whatever reason, it took four screenwriters to identify with the middle-school experience that most adults recall as an undisputed low period of life. This subject matter is pretty universal stuff: the boys are short; the gym uniforms are atrocious; the lunch tables are a source of much anxiety; and, even worse, former elementary school confidantes suddenly divide themselves into cliques. While no sane adult relishes the thought of reliving these years, the books appear to commiserate with those tweeners who are currently or about to experience the pain for themselves, and Kinney’s antihero supplies a sardonic outlook that arms its readers with the reassurance that they’re not alone in this phase. Unfortunately, much of the wit of movie’s semi-literary origins has been lost in the live-action translation to the big screen. The filmmakers rely far too much on gross-out humor and fail to extend the characters beyond their stick-figure confines; as a result, the real-life actors don’t portray themselves as anyone to root for or even care about, so any lessons supposedly learned tend to ring false.
Essentially, Wimpy Kid is only slightly better than its trailers (“Wanna see my secret freckle? It’s got a hair in it!”) would suggest, and it’s sort of like “The Wonder Years” with much less charm and no sense of nostalgia. Unlike the young Fred Savage, actor Zachary Gordon doesn’t make us feel for Greg, who isn’t so much an anguished soul trapped in a short kid’s body but, instead, a conceited, opportunistic, and unfeeling prick with an inexplicably inflated sense of self worth. At home, Greg has a sadistic older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) and inattentive parents Susan (Rachael Harris) and Frank Heffley (Steve Zahn, nooooo) who are portrayed as idiots. At school, fellow outcasts Fregley (Grayson Russell) and Rowley (Robert Capron) are company; the latter is Greg’s best friend from grade school, who is suddenly a huge embarrassment with a girly bike, rotund body, and innocent way of shouting, “Do you want to come over and play?” Within our antihero’s misguided search of cool, the perpetually clueless Rowley is suddenly everything that Greg doesn’t want to be, so he mercilessly rids himself of what he considers to be far too much dead weight upon his potential popularity. Yet, Greg doesn’t even deserve a friend like Rowley, who actually earns more cool points by genuinely not caring what anyone thinks and, as such, is the only character of the movie that moves beyond mere caricature.
Likewise, many of the movie’s scenarios aren’t all that believable, including the massive slice of swiss cheese that’s permanently affixed to the basketball court and a feared source of “nuclear cooties” for anyone who makes physical contact. One gets the feeling that this cheese is supposed to evoke the same tenor as the notorious frozen pole of A Christmas Story, but the sentiment gets muddled by seemingly spastic filmmakers who generally revert to an extended series of pratfalls and ritual humiliations. Then, the errant screenwriters do the predictable thing by quickly setting up conflict between the main characters. So, Greg dumps Rowley and sets off in search of instant popularity; later, the writers cue the falsely emotional humility and requisite feel-good resolution for a movie that otherwise would have no purpose but to temporarily amuse the kiddies. Speaking of which, my own daughter was moderately entertained but still not thrilled to watch an adaptation of “those boy books.” This is yet another example of where the screenwriters dropped the ball, for even though they realized the limitations of a boy-based audience and duly introduced a female character, Angie Steadman (Chloe Moretz), this girl doesn’t do much except try to be friends with Greg, who just isn’t that into her. As such, the opportunity to reel in a female audience for future installments has been missed. While it remains to be seen whether or not the box office will justify making a full-blown franchise out of Kinney’s four-soon-to-be-five book series, rest assured that Wimpy Kid: Full Throttle is likely already in the works.
Agent Bedhead lives in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She and her little black heart can be found at agentbedhead.com.