The Diary of a Wimpy Kid is one of those franchises with such a loyal, built-in audience, it doesn’t even need to try to do anything but satiate basic expectations. The latest film in the series, Roderick Rules, doesn’t. It is an over-lit, emotionally pristine, sanitized, corny, 96-minute television show that delivers two legitimate laughs and a whole lot of wholesome (read: dull) entertainment between.
Just as Seventeen magazine is really for 12-year-olds and Cosmopolitan for 17-year-olds, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid follows middle-school wimpy kid Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), but the target audience is probably a few years younger — perhaps the fourth to fifth grade range. Issues dealt with in the film include watching scary movies on sleepovers, asking the cute new girl to couple-skate at the roller rink, and avoiding the bullying of the meathead older brother. I’ll admit, I have no idea how this film fits in the greater scheme of the Wimpy Kid franchise — this was my first exposure to it. Heffley-saturated parents forgive me: this is a first-time reaction.
The Heffleys are as American as apple pie made with a frozen pie crust found at the supermarket and a can of homogenized, corn syrup-soaked apples imported from Chile. They are your normal two parent, three and a half kid family (three boys: high school, middle school, and the 3-year-old afterthought child). Frank (Steve Zahn), the father, is a straight-faced version of the emasculated, suburban robo-men that are skewered in the Owen Wilson-starring Hall Pass. He asserts parental authority by whining, loses himself in a Civil War fetish, and generally accepts the role of the resident dope (oh, how Homer Simpson has made it so much easier for dads to accept their intrinsic inanity).
The mom is Susan (Rachel Harris), a self-conscious kid’s nightmare of well-meaning, embarrassing intrusions. Rachel Harris plays the mom like a cross between Sarah Palin and Tina Fey, that is, a hokey provoker of all things rosy with only the slightest tint of irony, which, at times, does set her up as an amusing picture of the irritating striving-to-be supermom. There are some laughs there.
Greg is the middle child — tortured by his older brother Roderick (Devon Bostick) and his younger sibling Manny (doubled-teamed a la the Olson twins by Connor and Owen Fielding). Roderick plays pranks on his little brother like leaving a melted chocolate bar on the seat of the car so it stains his brother’s khaki pants feces-brown just as they are about to enter church. When their parents leave for a weekend, leaving the two brothers alone, Roderick throws a party and locks Greg in the basement.
Junior high isn’t the easiest time for most young boys. The adolescent endorphins are beginning to fire, and the brain develops a taste for and capacity to create cliques, posses, gangs, and other organized mechanisms of social torture. At school, Greg is victim and bully: bullied by the brainy and brawny Patty Farrell, among others, and bullying his pesky South Asian friend. Greg is never really held up for ridicule for the prolonged ostracization he encourages his entire grade to inflict on his friend. Instead he scribbles in his diary that he will likely score class clown for it. It is a curious pimple on the Wimpy Kid: the story’s inability to conceive of morality deeper than a Hallmark card.
Greg’s really concerned with winning the attention of Holly Hills (Peyton List), the blond-haired, future soccer mom we all scribbled musingly about in junior high (mine was named Katie Sammon). Only problem is Greg can’t help but look like a nerd, which isn’t aided by his brother’s continual embarrassment-provoking pranks. What breaks the cycle of mortification is a lie. When the Heffley parents leave town for a weekend, the brothers throw a party, and after they almost get caught, Roderick thinks Greg is sticking by his guns and not spilling the beans about the fest. He begins to befriend the young sibling, giving him valuable older brother advice for surviving the halls of junior high. These are Roderick’s rules, and they include cheating on papers, befuddling your way out of chores, and generally trying to live life as an antiseptic, family-friendly version of a Kevin Smith-style slacker.
The Heffleys are not the American family in caricature, but rather the American family putting on a comedy sketch for a Sunday school crowd. When it comes to family farce, I was reared on Married…with Children, Roseanne, The Simpsons, and The Goonies. Unlike these shows and movies, everything in Diary of a Wimpy Kid seems carefully screened by mom censors, which in and of itself isn’t a terrible thing, only that for all the non-9-year-olds in the audience there is little to latch onto. It is possible to make family entertainment that wrestles with a familial vision that has a bearing on reality. For recent examples, just look at Up or The Incredibles.
Despite its saccharine sincerity — that rivals 7th Heaven — Wimpy Kid has a limp moral vision. It’s benign messaging hinges on “value” promotion. There is one actually funny situation — when Greg chases his brother around their grandfather’s nursing home in his underwear — but the rest of the humor smacks like jokes moms might think their kids would like. I can see the appeal in the character (the middle kid with a burgeoning imagination lost to the routine and normalcy of a normal American life), and I suspect the books do a better job at driving home this conceit. But on screen, this wimpy kid offers little.