Diary of a Wimpy Kid
Diary of a Wimpy Kid has a great cast but a weak script that’s quick to pander with the bodily-function jokes, and slow—or rather, unable—to find anything more interesting to say.
The adaptation of the graphic novel follows Greg Heffley’s debut year in junior high, and the puny wiseguy’s obsession with becoming popular. This cool/uncool dynamic is the basis of every high school movie ever, and the only difference in the middle-school edition is that there’s no prom, and no rigid breakdown of jocks, cheerleaders, nerds, whatever. There’s many an indignity, though, and plenty of individual moments of wit and drama.
The trouble is, at the heart of the movie is a kid with no heart. Greg is a weasel, a terrible friend, an indifferent son, clueless and self-involved—flat out mean. A running joke is the game he plays with his fat, dorkier friend, Rowley: Rowley rides his big wheel while Greg tries to nail him with a football from across the street. Every time, the fat kid says, “Why do I always have to go first?” and Greg has some utterly fake excuse for being the one to take a hurtful shot at his only buddy. Even when he breaks his friend’s hand, he feels no remorse—and is in fact jealous when the injury exponentially increases fatboy’s popularity.
There are various stock setups: Older bullies who pursue the boys, an older brother who loves to torment him, the cool outsider chick who likes our lame hero for who he is (if only he could see!), and the current No. 1 clichÃ© of the family comedy: a father so clueless and inept that it’s impossible to believe he ever charmed and knocked up his inevitable partner, the earnest and caring mother.
The way you make a comedy about a self-involved jerk pay off is to have him freakin’ learn something by the end and become a better person. Seinfeld famously resisted that redemption, marvelously, but nobody here’s Jerry Seinfeld or Larry David. So giving us one reason to not write off this menacing Dennis would’ve helped.
If you forgive the script—and really, don’t—enjoy what the young actors do with it. The dorkiest kids are cringeworthy clichÃ©s, but nailed to perfection, and the young kids act well, unlike altogether too many child actors. Parents Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris could have been given better (not bigger, just better) roles, especially Zahn. Zachary Gordon, as the lead, is really fun to watch. His character’s a jerk, but man, can that kid do the job. His comic timing is great, and he reminded me of a young Tim Allen—if his character here grew up to be the Home Improvement guy, no one would be surprised.
I suppose it’s nice that the film avoided a sappy, saccharine wrapup, and there are some well-observed moments about childhood, but mostly it feels like a soulless adult construction—does anyone in sixth grade pursue popularity so single-mindedly and ineptly as this?—and nothing more.
Potentially Interesting Aside (your mileage may vary):
I was sent to the wrong theater, and instead of Diary, I sat with exactly four other viewers, all men in their mid-twenties, as She’s Out of Your League began. The opening scene, before the title confirmed my impulse to run, not walk out of the theater, consisted of an underpopular loser in his mid-twenties talking with his friends about the girl who dumped him, and the guys are giving him advice about scorin’ with the ladies, all of which is the usual insincere, deception-based advice we expect. Except one guy, who’s overweight and clearly simple of spirit, who says, in the voice of an adult on a child’s show like Sesame Street, “Or … he could just be himself.” Which gets roundly shouted down.
As I caught up with Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the same thing played out. Zachary Gordon is not as beaten down yet as the allegedly grown-up loser in League, but his sidekick is the same: Chubby, irredeemably dorky, and not just unwilling to play the manipulative, posing popularity games, but blithely unaware of them. I have no deep conclusion to draw from this—the similarity of the characters and setup, across a gulf of years, yet coming to a theater too close to you on the same day, struck me. I’m sure there’s something to be said about how we see ourselves, or how uncreative Hollywood scriptwriters see themselves, or see us seeing ourselves. I’d just rather sigh and shake my head than go to the trouble of saying it.