Sadly, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid isn’t a modest, Alan Bennett-style slice of ho-hum life, centered around a shy teenager’s weekend job at a Wimpy Bar in Lewisham. No, this is a big, brassy, colourful, and American, kids’ flick, adapted from the popular series of books by Jeff Kinney.
Zachary Gordon stars as Greg Heffley, a twelve-year-old who is thrown into the chaos of middle school. Being a little short in stature, and late to the puberty train, Greg is overwhelmed by his new surroundings, but comes up with various schemes to shoot to the top of the popularity ladder. Such an ambition, he finds, is a tricky one, as he comes up against a cast of quirky colleagues, and must contend with the unfathomable politics of school life.
The film sparks with visual cheekiness, especially in segues populated by hand-drawn, animated embellishments, but this flourish is double-edged, highlighting how completely cartoonish Diary Of A Wimpy Kid is.
The young cast put in perky, broad performances, but there’s a hollowness to the characterisation. Greg is a soliloquising proto-twerp of the Apatovian school, a bit of a dork, but with a cheeky arrogance that makes him simultaneously watchable and irritating. He is our narrative anchor, and he fares better than the supporting characters, which range from his obnoxious, mall punk older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), to school friends such as a gap-toothed, heavily accented Indian boy, a German exchange student, and a ginger haired, bespectacled maniac with hygiene issues.
Feeling out of place among these caricatures is a mysterious, brooding chick called Angie, played by Chloe Moretz. She edits the school newspaper, albeit ironically, satirising the vapid popularity contests, and hangs out under the bleachers, reading Allen Ginsberg. With her knowing, mature acting style, Moretz seems to have wandered out of a different film altogether, one that gives a damn about intellectual pursuit or healthy interests. It’s not a surprise to discover that this aloof, out-of-step character was added in during adaptation.
To make up for this, there’s a surplus of gross-out moments, toilet humour and gratuitous set pieces. A recurring joke turns around a slice of mouldy cheese left lying in the school yard and given mythical, disease-ridden properties by the kids.
Opening as a checklist of middle school settings (the lunch hall is described as “possibly the cruellest place on earth), Diary Of A Wimpy Kid becomes choppy and episodic as the school year progresses, feeling more like a streamlined pilot for a lazy revamp of Malcolm In The Middle. The narrative soon settles on Greg’s central dilemma. In this new world, where coolness is key, should he ditch his old best friend, Rowley (Robert Capron), a boy not only chubby, but a little effeminate?
The final act turnaround, and the trite message that comes with it, is hollow. Being a good friend is better than being popular, indeed, but as the film’s main trajectory throughout has been driven by social status, and laughing at kids who don’t align with a predefined norm, it seems insincere, and patronising.
This is one of Wimpy Kid‘s two major sins. The other is that it simply lacks imagination. It presents a polished, but bland spin on reality that trades aspiration and adventure for familiarity of observation and cheap laughs. It will, no doubt, prepare its young audience for a lifetime of unchallenging, moribund cinema.