Diary of a Wimpy Kid chronicles the adventures of wisecracking pre-teen Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), who must somehow survive the scariest time of anyone's life... middle school.
Just like war, school is hell. At least it is in the movies. In this rather lame-o adaptation of the mega-selling book by Jeff Kinney the 'battleground’ is middle-school and the high stakes involved include those staples of the teen (movie) experience: popularity and survival (of the coolest).
The late John Hughes had a talent for taking the banal suburban middle class angst of boring American teenagers and turning it into clever, fast-talking comedy in pictures like Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Pretty in Pink and The Breakfast Club. The problems with Wimpy Kid may start with the fact that it concerns 'tweeners’; awkward 12-year-olds, instead of mouthy 16 somethings. Whatever, but director Thor Freudenthal never quite nails a tone of 'cool’ that seemed effortless in Hughes’ movies. Wimpy has that 'talking-down’ tone that seems to patronise kids, their teen issues and their day-to-day experience. Watching this reminded me of those dreadful Disney pics my parents thought would entertain me; sure it’s innocuous and it’s even cute at times, but its style is that of a tired sitcom.
Part of the problem is its squeaky clean, US Never Never Land setting; it’s so ethnically, socially and geographically non-specific it may as well be another planet. Worse, than its surface of shiny happy people, is that it’s got no personality of its own which is a pity since the setup is promising.
Greg (Zachary Gordon) finds high-school to be a world of pain. With his chubby, socially inept best pal Rowley (Robert Capon, in the movie’s best performance) and a gauche hanger-on called Fregley (Grayson Russell), Greg seems to have no hope of reaching the most 'popular’ list.
The script, written by Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, is organised around a series of vignettes aimed to illustrate what Greg’s up against in a teen universe where the wrong phrase (hell, the wrong attitude) is a death sentence. Some of this stuff feels quite powerful; I particularly liked the agonising moment where Rowley asks him, in front of some 'tough’ dudes, whether he wants to come over to his house and 'play’.
Predictably and appropriately, there’s a lot of gross humour; and some of it is really well integrated into the plot. For instance, there’s a carefully attenuated bit of business concerning a lone slice of Swiss cheese, which, after lying out in the playground for aeons, has accrued mythological status for the kids.
Meanwhile, the plot winds (in a long winded fashion) its way to that age old plot stand-by of kids’ pics: On what basis do you choose a friend? What’s more important, social status or personal loyalty?
Greg, like generation after generation of hero-kids like him, finds the answer and learns his lesson. Trouble is, getting there wasn’t much fun, mostly because the characters (through no fault of the young performers) have all the personality of hand puppets.