He still has a certain draw
By Dan Kois
Friday, March 19, 2010
As it turns out, most children are not young wizards plucked from obscurity to lead the fight against evil. Nor do they fall down rabbit holes, or discover they're Greek demigods, or visit magical chocolate factories. No, most kids are just kids, and not all that much happens to ordinary kids -- except for school and family and life, which can seem as filled with peril as the most fantastic movie adventure. It's this welcome notion that animates "Diary of a Wimpy Kid," the live-action adaptation of the first of Jeff Kinney's bestselling hybrid novel/comics.
In Thor Freudenthal's intermittently inspired film, Greg Heffley -- the 11-year-old known to millions of young readers as a glum-faced stick figure with a cowlick -- may have been transformed into a live boy played by Zachary Gordon, but his trials and tribulations remain true to the book. He's just starting middle school as the second-smallest kid in his class. He has parents who don't understand him, a teenage brother who torments him and a best friend who humiliates him. Despite all that, he has dreams of fame and fortune -- or at least of securing a spot in the "Class Favorites" section of the yearbook.
Greg's desire to become known by his classmates -- which he pursues at all costs, and to the point of endangering his friendship with dorky Rowley (Robert Capron) -- is the thread that holds together "Wimpy Kid's" otherwise uneven series of set pieces. It's also the movie's most truthful observation about childhood. Like the books, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" is honest about the outsize importance that popularity -- or the lack of it -- has for sixth-graders. Greg's desperation to climb the social ladder at his school (illustrated, at times, with helpful graphics of an actual ladder, demonstrating the depths to which Greg's coolness falls) will be grimly recognizable to any current or former middle-schooler.
As for the rest of the movie, it's a scattershot affair, too slackly paced to sustain real comic momentum. Some gags, such as an extended Halloween sequence that features poor Rowley dressed by his nervous mother in a reflective vest and flashing lights, work for both kids and parents; others, such as a series of predictable wrestling matches, will have Mom and Dad checking their watches and sighing when Greg is pinned again -- this time by a girl!
Gordon and Capron, the two young actors at the center of the movie, are likable, if not particularly vivid. Sharp supporting performances come from Chlo Moretz, who in a month will shock audiences everywhere as a foul-mouthed tween superheroine in "Kick-Ass" but for now plays a brainy seventh-grader reading "Howl" under the bleachers; and Devon Bostick as Greg's smelly brother Rodrick, who plays drums for a band called, amusingly, Lded Diper. (While the movie does indulge in some mild gross-out humor, its infatuation with boogers and pee is substantially less than that of any real 11-year-old boy.)
In its concern for the particulars of real-life childhood, "Wimpy Kid" seems less like a movie than an agreeable family sitcom -- like "Malcolm in the Middle," but without the crack comic timing. We parents, who all think our children are extraordinary, might find the world of "Wimpy Kid" a bit constrained. But kids who realize they're fully ordinary -- that is, pretty much all of them -- will be pleased to see a world they recognize on the big screen.
Kois is a freelance reviewer. Contains rude humor and rude language.