Something this big screen adaption of Jeff Kinney's wildly popular and highly amusing series of cartoon diaries gets right is the self-absorbed, insensitive, casually cruel personality of its likably beleaguered tween protagonist, Greg Heffley. Far from the angelically mischievous tots that fill family-friendly films, Diary of a Wimpy Kid acknowledges that children can sometimes be selfish little bastards. They can also exhibit a startling capacity for change. Which is what has, in part, made the books so successful. Kinney finds just the right balance of arrogance, smug naïveté and learned decency to appeal to kids struggling to define the world around them.
That, and his stories never lack for boogers and potty jokes.
Though this big-screen adaptation never quite finds the right pace or tone, director Thor Freudenthal (the dreadful Hotel For Dogs) adequately translates Kinney's observant tribute to the everyday humiliations that await unpopular middle-schoolers. The director throws in just enough zippy direction to highlight the script's stronger jokes while falling back on the books' trademark stick-figure animation to keep things lively.
On his first day of junior high, Greg (Zachary Gordon) is warned by his unrelentingly obnoxious older brother Roderick (Devon Bostick) how easy it is to become a social outcast. The next 90 minutes of Jackie and Jeff Filgo's scattershot screenplay dutifully chronicle how the diminutive tween becomes just that. He's beaten up by a girl, defeated in wrestling by the geekiest kid in school, hunted by teenagers whose truck he accidentally scratched on Halloween, and ruins the school play. And then there's the slice of festering cheese on the school playground; to touch it is to become the ultimate pariah. Will our hero cross the threshold into ultimate loserdom?
Despite each and every disgrace, Greg not only endures, he remains delusionally confident that redemption is right around the corner. He's also relentlessly unappreciative of his loyal-beyond-all-reason best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron). An overweight, unabashedly geeky and endearingly Zen-like ball of optimism, Rowley is an oasis of sweet-natured comic joy in Diary's second act desert of gross bodily-function jokes.
Capron is also the most winning member of the cast, with most of the other kid actors mugging their way through each vignette. In particular, a wise-beyond-her-years eighth-grader named Angie is added as an unnecessary Jiminy Cricket. The film's only recognizable stars (Steve Zahn and Rachel Harris) are wasted in underwritten roles as Greg's mostly befuddled parents.
Though it pretends to, Wimpy doesn't really offer any insight about the mortifying social skirmishes that face most adolescents. Greg suffers at the hands of angrier and more popular kids but never seems to learn anything. While that open-ended approach may work for Kinney's faux diaries, film requires something a bit more dramatically satisfying.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.