Friday, August 13, 2010

Diary of a Wimpy Kid (Color Force/20th Century-Fox, 2010)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

After we watched Shattered [see below], Charles said he wanted a comedy — “something that will make me laugh, or at least smile” — and so I went ahead and ran the film I had wanted to watch last night anyway: Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a 2010 release from 20th Century-Fox of a production by something called “Color Force.” It started life as a series of “graphic novels” (i.e., very long comic books with bound spines) of that quirky title, written and drawn by Jeff Kinney — and the producers got two separate two-person writing teams (Jackie and Jeff Filgo, Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah) to assemble a script for Thor Freudenthal to direct. The plot of the film deals with suburban kid Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon, who for someone his age is quite cute and doesn’t look particularly wimpy at all) and his first year at middle school, where he hatches a series of schemes to make himself seem important and well respected by his peers, only of course none of them turn out the way he intended them to.

Also in the dramatis personae are his family from hell — father Frank (Steve Zahn), mother Susan (Rachael Harris), sadistic older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) and a younger brother, Manny (split between twins Connor and Owen Fielding — a common gambit in casting a very young character so they can have two people who look alike shoot the scenes and not work either kid longer than the legal maximum), who — thanks to a trauma the Heffley parents blame on Greg — has never quite got toilet-trained (he eats dinner from a commode-equipped high chair, apparently because it comes out just as fast as it goes in). The opening scene is a sheer delight: Greg’s alarm clock goes off, he gets out of bed with virtually nothing on (NAMBLA’s membership isn’t the intended audience for this film but they’d have a delight with this sequence anyway) and frantically dresses for his first day at middle school … at 4 a.m.: his brother Rodrick played a sadistic trick on him and reset his clock.

Other significant characters include Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron), Greg’s best friend in grade school but a social encumbrance in middle school because he’s fat, red-headed and dorky, and Our Hero doesn’t want him around sabotaging his chances to crack the inner circle but also doesn’t have the heart to tell him to get lost, and a whole host of people who either reach out to him and he rebuffs or who rebuff him before he has the chance to know him. Among the latter are Patty Ferrell (Laine MacNeil), the school bitch who’s been beating Greg up since fourth grade; Bryce Anderson (Owen Best), the boy all the girls are after because they say he has a cute butt (“How can it be ‘cute’? It’s a butt!” asks the clueless Rowley); and Collin (Alex Ferris), whom Rowley picks up when he dumps Greg after a broken hand — courtesy of a weird game Greg was playing with him in which he throws a football at Rowley while he’s riding a tricycle — suddenly turns Rowley into a school star while Greg is still considered too terminally wimpy to bother with.

The plot is full of quirky contrivances — a piece of rancid, moldy cheese that has been stuck on the school playground for years and around which has formed a superstition that anyone who touches it is the “cheese boy” or “cheese girl” and is automatically a school pariah; three teenage tough guys in a red pickup truck who fasten onto Greg and Rowley after they innocently cross their paths one Hallowe’en night; an audition for a school production of The Wizard of Oz in which the drama teacher makes all the students try out with her favorite song, the legendarily overwrought Jim Steinman production “Total Eclipse of the Heart” that was an early-1980’s comeback record for singer Bonnie Tyler (according to an “trivia” posting, Tyler actually supplied the voices for all the kids auditioning with her song, but I don’t believe that — they sound like authentic kids’ voices to me); the production itself, in which Greg gets cast as one of the ambulatory apple trees, only instead of getting to pelt Dorothy (Patty Ferrell, who else?) with apples as in the movie has to join his fellow trees in a sappy trio telling how much they love her and wish her well in her quest; and Rodrick’s avocation, as drummer for a thoroughly lousy punk band (he grips the drumsticks as if they were clubs and he was murdering the drums with them instead of playing them) called Löded Diper. There are a few of the bathroom jokes that seem de rigueur in today’s movie “comedies,” though at least one of them (Greg, locked in his bedroom by brother Rodrick, is forced out by the call of nature and ends up pissing on his brother, whom by now we’re convinced thoroughly deserved it) is actually hilarious.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is hardly a great movie, and it’s derivative as all get-out — among the influences I counted were Meet Me in St. Louis (especially the Hallowe’en scene), A Christmas Story, virtually every Peanuts special ever filmed (Kinney’s original drawings, in which Greg is simply a few ovals with limbs and three tufts of hair sticking out of an otherwise bald head, make his debt to Charles Schultz even more obvious than the movie does — in a lot of ways Greg Heffley is Charlie Brown a few years older) and Todd Solondz’ first film, Welcome to the Dollhouse (his own middle-school nightmare, and though Solondz’ protagonist is a girl instead of a boy the two films are close enough Diary of a Wimpy Kid comes off as almost a spoof of Welcome to the Dollhouse) — but it’s also quite amusing, hardly screamingly funny but still well worth your while and a movie that will give you a good time even if it might also flash you uncomfortably back to your own years in middle school.

At one point early on Greg muses that middle school is a dumb idea, just a place to park kids on their way from grade school to their emergence as teenagers — and I remember that seventh grade was the most miserable one of my own school years. I had just been pulled out of the private school (run, oddly given my mother’s politics, by a couple of Right-wingers who saw a “Back to Basics” curriculum as part of their plan to breed the new generation of Right-wing revolutionaries to run the world) in which I’d spent grades three through six and thrust into the public-school arena. I wasn’t ready for competitive P.E. and I was at the bottom of my class in that department, and though I did well in academic subjects that was decidedly not cool. About the one thing I did to try to get accepted by my peers was give up all my female friends — it was made clear to me early on that “real men” didn’t hang out with girls — and that made me incredibly miserable, as did the unmerciful teasing I got all year, though I did learn one valuable lesson from it: I learned not to give a damn what anyone thought of me or how I lived and to have enough pride and confidence in myself to go my own way. (Ironically, while a lot of people report that their lives fall apart once they get to high school, I did quite well there actually; in high school I was finally on a campus big enough for me to find other kids I could be simpatico with and who shared my interests so I could befriend them without compromising who I was and wanted to be.) Though (fortunately) the junior high school (the hideous neologism “middle school” hadn’t been coined yet) I went to didn’t have a cafeteria — if it had, the insane pecking order shown in this movie and in Welcome to the Dollhouse would no doubt have existed there — in just about every other respect I can recall it was exactly like the one depicted here.