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Review: ‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid’

Stay Home and Read the Book

Above: "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (opening March 19 throughout San Diego) is based on Jeff Kinney’s successful kids' books but you might want to keep the kids home and have them read the books.

Okay to be honest I never read the book “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” but even the liner notes are better than the film. I actually invited a five-year-old (and his mom) to the film with me and I had to apologize to him afterward for making him suffer through that. Fortunately his mom took him out for a shake after.

Children’s books rarely get adapted to the screen with all their charms and originality intact. Just look at the abysmal failures of “A Series of Unfortunate Events” and the recent Dr. Seuss films like “Cat in the Hat” and “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” So I didn’t go in with high hopes for “Wimpy Kid” being a great film. But I did think that it would be tolerable.

Like the books, the film focuses on Greg (Zachary Gordon), an adolescent about to enter middle school. The opening of the film sets up the minefield of social dangers he’s about to face – bullies, finding a lunch time table, looking cool, getting picked for sports teams, girls, etc. We’ve been through all this many times before and the film fails to find a way to make this familiar terrain seem either fresh or engaging. The occasional bits of animation taken from the drawings in Kinney’s book offer brief relief from the live action doldrums.

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

20th Century Fox

Above: "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

The central problem with the film lies with the character of Greg – we simply don’t like him. Gordon is one of those Disney-style actors (like Shia LeBeouf) who seems all grown up and self conscious of his acting technique. Add to that the fact that the character as written is selfish, mean, and superficial and you have a film that’s not easy to enjoy. Gordon’s Greg thinks highly of himself, values popularity over everything else, treats his best friend abominably, and does nothing to show that he possesses any redeeming qualities. Granted the story is about Greg learning some values and discovering what's really important so we don't expect him to be perfect but he should be appealing in some way. We should at least empathize with his plight as low man on the middle school social ladder. But the only time we feel sorry for him is when his older brother picks on him. Based on Kinney’s appealing drawings, Gordon just seems wrong for the part. He looks more like he’d be with the in crowd than with the socially inept outcasts.

Directed by Thor Freudenthal (I kid you not that’s his name), the film looks like a lame Disney live action TV show. Everything is sunnily lit like it’s on a sound stage far from the real world. Freudenthal could have rooted the story in the real world where he could have created a warm family comedy or he could have played up the comedy to deliver an exaggerated view of the horrors of childhood. But instead he chooses a bland stylistic middle ground that fails to invest the story with personality of any kind. The film has four credited screenwriters (Jackie Filgo, Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs, and Jeff Judah) and that’s generally a bad sign. In this case it seems to prevent the film from finding its voice or developing any consistency beyond just plain bad.

"Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

20th Century Fox

Above: "Diary of a Wimpy Kid"

The film does have some talented performers that it wastes. Steve Zahn plays Greg’s compassionate dad, Robert Capron is Greg’s nice but nerdy friend, and Chloe Grace Moretz is the hip art chick -- they are all likable, good performers with nothing to do in this wasteland. (But look for Moretz to shine in next month's "Kick-Ass.")

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid” (rated PG for some rude humor and language) is more painful than a bad day in middle school, and that’s pretty damn bad.

Companion viewing: “A Christmas Story,” “Mean Girls,” “Election,” “Superbad”

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