Every single sight gag in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” telegraphs its punchline for what seems like an eternity. Anyone, young or old, who sees the movie — the fourth in a series of films based on Jeff Kinney’s books — can probably predict how each setup will pay off. It’s about as subtle as an anvil landing on your foot.
Whether the joke involves exploding baked goods, pigeon poop raining through a sunroof or teen antihero Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker) searching for his baby brother in a ball pit and coming up with a dirty diaper instead — an image that goes viral — the comic mayhem plays out in a slow, wait-for-it rhythm. When Greg’s trickster of a big brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright) eats a stick of fried butter at a country fair, then goes on a gravity-defying ride, you know exactly what’s going to happen. Every situation heralds a shameless ba-dum-BUM payoff.
Still, as a low comedy about crazed middle-American family life, “The Long Haul” pretty much delivers on its promise, diapers and all. At least the ratio of giggles to groans runs about 50/50.
The inspiration for the film is the ninth book in Kinney’s “Wimpy Kid” series about a small-for-his-age middle-schooler who longs to be cool and popular — and fails miserably. While “The Long Haul” has a totally new cast from the earlier movies — whose child actors are college-age now — director David Bowers helmed the last two releases (2011’s “Rodrick Rules” and 2012’s “Dog Days”) and co-wrote the latest screenplay with author Kinney. Thus, the tone strongly echoes the earlier films, and the animated line drawings based on Kinney’s illustrations still wittily punctuate the action. But the level of gross-out humor feels amped up, and the absence of Greg’s school friends on this road trip leaves a comedic void.
In addition to Drucker, a near look-alike for his predecessor Zachary Gordon, and Wright (replacing Devon Bostick), Owen Asztalos fills in for Robert Capron as Greg’s apple-cheeked best pal, Rowley. Alicia Silverstone and Tom Everett Scott ably replace Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn as Greg and Rodrick’s harried parents.
Alas, the new Rowley registers only briefly, before disappearing on vacation and leaving Greg to his fate. Missing altogether are Greg’s and Rowley’s magnificently nerdy schoolmates: the freckle-faced yuckiness connoisseur Fregley and the diminutive know-it-all Chirag (played by Grayson Russell and Karan Brar in the earlier films).
Greg, the diarist of the title and our narrator, notes early on that as a kid, “You have zero control over your own life.” He wants a lazy summer, but his parents opt for a road trip to his great-grandmother’s 90th birthday party. Even worse, Mom rules that it’s going to be an “unplugged” trip, meaning no cellphones or other electronic devices. They set off, with Dad’s overpacked motorboat hitched to the car, and with Greg, Rodrick and toddler Manny (Dylan and Wyatt Walters) in the back seat, with Manny’s training potty. There’s also a piglet at one point.
What could go wrong?
At a nightmarish motel, Greg accidentally infuriates a hairy guest he dubs “Beardo,”(Chris Coppola) who thereafter tries to throttle Greg whenever their paths cross.
For Greg, the only upside to the trip is his plan to sneak off with Rodrick to a video-game expo. There, Greg hopes to expunge his “Diaper Hands” humiliation by appearing in a YouTube video with a star gamer. The rather flat third act cries out for the presence of Greg’s friends, as does the rest of the film. The family dynamics enlighten and amuse, but only up to a point. Like the long-suffering title character, viewers may be left wondering: Where are Greg’s nutty buddies when we need them?
PG. At area theaters. Contains lots of gross-out humor and at least one scene with young Greg stuck outside in his underwear. 90 minutes.