'Wimpy Kid' Goes Hollywood (And Gets A Little Lost)

Wrestling team

Geek Patrol: Scrawny middle-schooler Zachary Gordon (third from right) chronicles his schoolyard struggles in a diary: popularity, morons and cafeteria antics are just some of the things this 11-year-old has to contend with. Rob McEwan/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Rob McEwan/Twentieth Century Fox

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

  • Director: Thor Freudenthal
  • Genre: Comedy
  • Running Time: 120 min
Rated PG for some rude humor and language.

With: Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron, Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn

In simple drawings and lots of frank, self-deprecating commentary, Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books chart the episodic misadventures of a middle-school outcast. The "author" of the diary, a scrawny seventh-grader named Greg Heffley, wants the reader to know upfront that he means it more as a journal, but his mom screwed up and got him a book with "DIARY" on the front.

"So don't expect me to be all 'Dear diary this' and 'Dear diary that,' " he warns, before sketching a stick-figure bully clocking him in the jaw and calling him a sissy.

The Wimpy Kid novels have been wildly popular — but right away, from the very first page of the very first book, the challenges of bringing the franchise to the screen make themselves subtly apparent. Whatever Greg's protestations, he really is writing a diary, one where his anxieties about fitting in — heightened in this case by his mother's cluelessness and his own nerdy doodling habits — are met by an imagined beat-down from a blockhead twice his size.

On the page, it's a funny little snapshot of the preteen mind, ruled by prevailing forces of fear and aggression, yet still given to silliness and lowbrow yuks. In a movie, however, Greg's thoughts are made painfully literal, so instead of being a reflection of his hyperactive imagination, they're grotesque cartoons standing in for real life.

Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron and Grayson Russell i i

Show And Tell: Greg (Zachary Gordon, left) and Rowley (Robert Capron, right) are shocked by a classmate's navel oddity. Rob McEwan/Twentieth Century Fox hide caption

itoggle caption Rob McEwan/Twentieth Century Fox
Zachary Gordon, Robert Capron and Grayson Russell

Show And Tell: Greg (Zachary Gordon, left) and Rowley (Robert Capron, right) are shocked by a classmate's navel oddity.

Rob McEwan/Twentieth Century Fox

Kinney's books make a running joke of Greg's utter obliviousness to the world around him — his ill treatment of friends and family, his false assessment of his own popularity, his chronic inability to read a situation right. And because his mistakes are laid bare by his own pen, he's easy to forgive.

In the movie, Greg (Zachary Gordon) more often comes off looking like a clueless brat, eager to conform and quick to shed his nerdy friends for a higher spot up the ladder. From his first day at middle school — starting in sixth grade here, back a grade from the books — Greg torments Rowley (Robert Capron), his chunky best friend, for not shedding his oblivious, elementary-school giddiness, and tries to steer clear of social lepers like Fregley (Grayson Russell), with his unsightly moles and vigorous nose-picking.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid eventually brings Greg around to a predictable "be yourself" theme, but not before a noisy pileup of humiliating moments, kid-friendly slapstick, or some combination thereof — as when Greg joins the wrestling team and gets decked by a monstrous girl in pigtails. Director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) and a battery of screenwriters cram all the gags they can into 92 minutes, without any care for the hiccups in pacing or a hero who's as thoughtless and mean as the bullies who tease, snub, and push him around. In the diary, he's just an amiably clueless kid; in the film, he really has it coming.

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