‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’
Starring: Zachary Gordon, Devon Bostick, Steve Zahn, Rachael Harris, Robert Capron, Peyton List
Rating: PG, and needlessly, for brief rude humor
Jeff Kinney’s clever and perceptive “Wimpy Kid” series made a thoroughly delightful transition to the big screen last year, when “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” became a well-deserved hit.
The equally happy surprise is that the just-released sequel, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules,” is every bit as charming as its predecessor. Director David Bowers, making a solid live-action debut after cutting his teeth on the animated features “Flushed Away” and “Astro Boy,” wisely resists several opportunities to crank up the mayhem; the result feels just as real-world as the first film.
Which is crucial, of course, because the whole point of Kinney’s books is that his readers identify so strongly with their protagonist. Damage that relationship, and any film adaptation would suffer.
Not that this new film isn’t funny. Indeed, it’s often hilarious, precisely because screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah — closely following Kinney’s template — play to all the adolescent-oriented catastrophes that give boys nightmares: not knowing how to approach the cute new girl in school, getting caught doing something dumb in a very public setting, and (oh, the horror!) accidentally winding up in a WOMEN’S public restroom.
At its best, which is frequently, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules” echoes the perfect blend of kid-size trauma and adult perspective that director Bob Clark brought to his adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s “A Christmas Story,” so many years ago. You really couldn’t ask for more.
Having survived the various catastrophes and angst-laden crises of his previous year, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is relieved to enter the seventh grade, where he expects (hopes?) life will be less traumatic for him and best friend Rowley (Robert Capron). Not likely. Greg is still plagued by bratty, pig-tailed classroom nemesis Patty (Laine MacNeil) — the Margaret to Hank Ketchum’s Dennis — and still suffers the geeky, weird behavior of tag-along Fregley (Grayson Russell).
Things also have worsened on the home front. Older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) has become even more arrogantly imperious as a goth-oriented drummer who dreams of rock band stardom and sneaks his mother’s eye-liner when she isn’t looking. Rodrick’s choice of band name — Loded Diper — reflects his spelling-challenged lifestyle, which isn’t heavy on book smarts.
Additionally, Greg frequently is blamed for the unrestrained bad behavior of baby brother Manny (alternately played by twins Connor and Owen Fielding), who gets away with murder because, as he so frequently insists — while sticking out his tongue — “I’m only 3.”
Rodrick teases, taunts and tortures Greg 24/7, a situation that doesn’t go unnoticed by their mother, Susan (Rachael Harris). She fancies herself a progressive, problem-solving adult who must live up to the reputation established by the “parental wisdom” column she writes for the local newspaper. She frequently discusses Greg by name, which serves as a further humiliation.
Dad Frank (a well-modulated Steve Zahn) just tries to keep the peace. We suspect that Frank perceives and sympathizes with his middle son’s plight … but cannot appear to take sides or show favorites.
After a typically quarrelsome exchange between Greg and Rodrick, Susan lays down the law and demands that they work harder to get along. She tries everything from bribery (“Mom bucks”) to draconian punishments, but we know that her efforts will be futile. When the divide is just right, and the kids concerned are the appropriate ages, sibling rivalry is a way of life.
That said, after a series of ill-advised skirmishes, Greg and Rodrick do achieve a truce of sorts. And as funny as things have been until now, they get even better when the older boy imparts his “pearls of wisdom” to Greg:
* Don’t be good at anything you don’t want to do;
* Always lower Mom and Dad’s expectations;
* Never do something when someone else can do it for you.
Although the primary plot concerns this dysfunctional relationship between Greg and Rodrick, the film is composed of numerous, smaller episodic events: the sort of hand-smacking-forehead minor calamities that make up a kid’s daily routine. That’s the worst part of adolescence: the nagging certainty that every move, every decision, results in some sort of mistake … and the fear that you’re the only one MAKING such bone-headed moves.
Greg and Rowley’s sleep-over is fall-down hilarious, thanks to Greg’s ill-advised choice of a DVD to watch: a lurid horror flick called “The Foot,” parts of which are shown for our amusement. A note being passed in class has a calamitous result, and Greg’s first taste of truly public embarrassment occurs at the local roller-skating rink, where he first spies new girl Holly Hills (Peyton List). But the climactic catastrophe — the sequence destined to live forever via scores of DVD repeats — occurs when Greg and Rodrick are sent to visit their grandfather for a few days, at the rest home where he lives.
But the formula isn’t solely pranks and pitfalls. Life lessons are learned here, even when the circumstances are amusing. More to the point, these characters aren’t solely defined by their occasionally ill-advised behavior. When push comes to shove, Greg steps up and does the right thing, and does so manfully; that’s a lesson he learned during the various events in the first film. And Rodrick, as well, isn’t a complete jerk.
Gordon is a marvelous adolescent protagonist, every bit as engaging, perceptive and haplessly trouble-prone as Fred Savage (“The Wonder Years”), Frankie Muniz (“Malcolm in the Middle”) and Tyler James Williams (“Everybody Hates Chris”). Bostick is similarly memorable as the pluperfect jerk older brother, and his wide-eyed “Who, me?” double-takes are to die for.
Edward Shearmur’s soundtrack is appropriately giddy, sparkling and poignant as needed, and Kinney himself supplies the lyrics to the Loded Diper song we eventually get to, ah, experience. You’ll also spot Kinney briefly, as Holly’s father.
Film adaptations rarely live up to their source books to begin with: a movie that can do so, when drawing from works as idiosyncratic as Kinney’s, is an even rarer bird. And that it can happen twice … well, I can’t point to any other examples. Both these films deserve to be purchased — when this new one hits video afterlife — and placed on the shelves, right alongside Kinney’s books.
And I’m sure they will be.
— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com