Tales of a Seventh Grade Nothing
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 bit from its opening. Freshly minted middle-schooler Greg Heffley, lamenting his pubertal lot in life, addresses the camera and asks us, “Who wants to see a movie about a kid who is stuck in middle school with a bunch of morons?” Cuz if this is what is on offer, the answer is most definitely “not me.” And apparently not the multiplex screening room full of kids I saw the movie with, who squirmed through the whole thing and didn’t laugh once.
Perhaps the biggest problem with Greg’s loosely strung together episodic exploits is that Greg is the biggest moron here, just about the least likeable character onscreen. Apparently it is a notable feature of author Jeff Kinney’s cartoon books [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] that his Greg is not perfect, and that’s great: there’s nothing less appealing or less believable than a character with no human flaws. But while young leading man Zachary Gordon (Madagascar: Escape 2 Africa, The Brothers Bloom) is engaging enough, as movie moppets go, the script — by a small army of, unsurprisingly, veteran sitcom writers (Jackie and Jeff Filgo; Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah) — renders him as little more than a selfish, lying jerk who chases middle-school fame by any means necessary. He’ll just about tolerate another outcast kid because at least the other guy is shorter, saving Greg from the indignity of the dubious honor of Shortest Kid in School, but the things he does to his supposed best friend, the sweet and happily dorky Rowley (Robert Capron: Bride Wars), in the pursuit of coolness and celebrity are not pretty.
Someone might have told director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) that the things that a storyteller might be able to get away with in the stick drawings that make up Kinney’s cartoon novel can suddenly seem heartless and cruel once actual real flesh-and-blood kids are standing in for the characters. Middle school is bad enough, isn’t it, what with the “science experiment gone bad” of budding adolescence and teachers who appear to enjoy setting kids on one another — the gym coach puts the boys to playing “gladiator,” which is like full-contact dodgeball, a game designed to humiliate the kids who haven’t had their growth spurt yet — that it hardly needs the piling on of Greg’s appalling behavior, which doesn’t extend merely to treating his best friend like dirt but also to endangering some kindergartners he’s supposed to be looking after. 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 at the same time also captures the awkwardness of this stage of childhood and all the new social rules that must be obeyed even before you realize what’s going on, not to mention the accompanying adolescent alienation. It is “the cheese touch,” a condition “worse than nuclear cooties,” which one acquires from the 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 without ever actually rotting away. Once acquired — as by accidentally touching the cheese — the cheese touch must be passed on to another student. Which is 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 are. It might have made Diary of a Wimpy Kid feel less like it was infected with the cheese touch itself.