Charm Missing in Second 'Wimpy Kid' Offering
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
The charm attributed to Jeff Kinney's cartoon chronicle of a wimpy Everyboy's life must work big-time in his books, given their multiple printings and translation into 30 languages -- not to mention the two movies, games, puzzles, action figures, pajamas, and even a Macy's parade balloon the franchise has spawned. But charm -- let alone fun, personality, plot or any evidence of direction -- is nonexistent in the second cinematic chapter of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" saga. As overseen by Dave Bowers ("Flushed Away," "Astro Boy"), this dumb movie plays out in some time-warp bubble, a boring mishmash of Sunday school sermonizing and '50s sitcom starring a blanded-up Beaver encumbered by parents seriously lacking in IQ points.
Surviving his first year in middle school preoccupied our miscreant hero in the first "Diary," but now that Greg's a seventh-grader, his worst nightmare is Rodrick (Devon Bostick), older brother and harasser extraordinaire. Rodrick is repulsive in appearance, his pranks are the sport of a mean-spirited bully, and his aspirations -- hosting a distinctly un-wild party, drumming in a supremely untalented rock band dubbed Loded Diper -- signal a loser in the making. Hard to gauge how old this guy is, which only adds to the creepiness of a character who might be just out of high school or a college dropout living in his parents' attic. In either case, his obsession with his kid brother verges on neurotic.
Indeed, Holly, the willowy blonde (Peyton List) for whom young Greg falls is a full foot taller than her admirer, and looks of an age to be hanging out with Rodrick -- or cruisin' in "American Graffiti"'s iconic white T-bird. It's jarring to watch her strolling with this skinny little kid, talking the most inane dialogue ever. Forget the phoniness and lack of chemistry. What's a wee bit squirm-worthy in this prepubescent hookup is the disparity in size and stages of puberty.
Just about the time Greg fixates on Holly, Rodrick ups his ante of humiliating tricks, like arranging for his little brother to walk into church with a huge poop stain on his pants. If you think that's funny, you'll fall down laughing when Greg screams, "It's chocolate!" and takes a lick off his finger to prove it. When Rodrick threatens to hand over Greg's goopy diary to Holly, we're treated to the side-splitting sight of Greg zooming through a retirement home in nothing but his tighty-whiteys. How much more hilarity can a person bear? The topper comes when the kid, trapped in the ladies' loo, is swamped by aged female flesh -- "Peeping Tom!" the over-the-hill gang shrieks delightedly. Greg, emerging with a puke-face, desperately shakes off the taint.
OK, you say, this is just the sort of drecky humor that a 12-year-old boy gets off on. Really? Must I believe that Y-chromosome 'tweens are an alien species, suffering from a conspicuous lack of imagination and intelligence? As portrayed by Zachary Gordon, Greg lacks any of the charm and spontaneity that made the little-android-lost in "A.I." so appealingly human. Frequently he looks as distracted and affectless as James Franco hosting the Oscars. No real sparks of mischievousness or bone-deep embarrassment or endearing flush of affection light this kid up. His roly-poly pal Rowley (Robert Capron) occasionally gives signs of a happy slyness (watch him start up a conga line at Rodrick's party!), but he can't climb out of the role of a sweet, slow dork willing to follow Greg anywhere. Middle school is full of geeks and grotesques like freckled Fregley (Grayson Russell) and a dwarfish, stereotyped Indian, sure to send every normal kid scurrying for cover as soon as they appear. Perhaps a howling hoot in cartoon land, the unsubtle cruelty grates on-screen.
And then there are Greg's parents. TV sitcom vet Rachael Harris has long since perfected her mechanical mommy moves, so "Diary" is no step down for her. But how does an actor like Steve Zahn descend to such depths? Making funny faces behind his assertive wife as she lectures the kids, mugging it up when stymied by the simplest matter, wagging his finger at his errant sons -- this moronic creature is the best that filmmakers can offer Christian Bale's superb co-star in "Rescue Dawn," the stone-cold psycho in "A Perfect Getaway"? What a waste.
I want to say that there are a couple of funny moments during the climactic talent show, but then I remember the pigeon-poop jokes and Mrs. Heffley's crowd-pleasing herky-jerky boogie ... and the faint praise refuses to come. "Diary" drags interminably, looking for ha-has in all the wrong places, places where real-live kids and grown-ups wouldn't be caught dead. Tragically, while parents wrangle over the impact of sharp-witted "Rango" on 'tweens, they'll probably encourage their kids to flock to this mind-numbing silliness.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool.") She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kathleen's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.