Diary of a Wimpy Kid (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
If your movie, based on a series of bestselling kids' cartoon books, ends up on the big screen feeling like Diary of a Wimpy Kid does — like a rejected pilot for a Nickelodeon sitcom — it might have been wise to excise one particular bit from its opening.
Freshly minted middle-schooler Greg Heffley, lamenting his pubertal lot in life, addresses the camera and asks, "Who wants to see a movie about a kid who is stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons?"
If that's all you're offering, the answer is: "Not me." And apparently not the screening room full of kids watching the movie, who squirmed through it and didn't laugh once.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Greg's episodic exploits is that Greg is the biggest moron here, and about the least likeable character onscreen. Apparently, in Jeff Kinney's cartoon books, it's important that Greg isn't perfect — and that's great. But while leading man Zachary Gordon is engaging enough as movie moppets go, the script — by a small army of veteran sitcom writers — renders him as little more than a selfish, lying jerk chasing middle-school celebrity by any means necessary.
He almost tolerates another outcast kid because the other guy is shorter, which saves Greg from the dubious honor of "Shortest Kid in School." But the things Greg does to his supposed best friend, the sweet and happily dorky Rowley (Robert Capron), in the pursuit of coolness are not pretty.
Someone might have told director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) that the things Kinney's cartoon-novel stick figures get away with, can suddenly seem heartless and cruel once actual flesh-and-blood kids do them. Isn't middle school bad enough already, what with the "science experiment gone bad" of budding adolescence, and teachers who appear to enjoy setting kids against one another? (The gym coach revels in having the boys play "gladiator," a sort of full-contact dodgeball designed to humiliate the smallest kids.) The film hardly needs to pile on Greg's endlessly appalling behavior, which extends beyond mistreating his best friend to even endangering some kindergartners.
I understand the point the film is attempting to make about learning life lessons the hard way, but Diary is neither stylized enough to diminish the harshness, nor grounded enough to cope with it realistically. In this mushy middle, the movie doesn't appear to appreciate how downright distasteful it is.
There's only one genuinely weirdly amusing concept here, one that both captures the awkwardness of this stage of childhood and the new social rules that must be obeyed even before you realize what's going on. It is "the cheese touch," a condition "worse than nuclear cooties."
One acquires it from a moldy piece of cheese on the school grounds that, miraculously, never gets dissolved in the rain or eaten by a dog or swept up by the janitor, but continues to rot away. Once acquired — often by accidentally touching the cheese — the cheese touch must be passed on to another student. This is understandably tough to do, because no one will come near anyone cursed with the cheese touch.
If only the whole movie were as cleverly presented and as smartly knowing as the cheese-touch segments. It might have made Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel less like it was infected with the cheese touch itself.