A litany of humiliations befalls the protagonist of Diary of Wimpy Kid, fitting given that this adaptation of Jeff Kinney’s popular kids-lit series is itself a minor embarrassing misfire. Thor Freudenthal’s film is a close-but-no-cigar endeavor, recognizing in its tale of Greg (Zachary Gordon), a smallish kid just entering the wide, wild world of middle school, how adolescence is a series of small- and large-scale clashes, and yet failing to generate any real insight or humor from such knowledge. Greg goes off to school with dire forewarnings from his bullying heavy-metal brother (Devon Bostick) in his head, and then finds those warnings coming true thanks to his childish, overweight best friend Rowley (Robert Capron)—who immediately mortifies by loudly asking, like a toddler, “Do you want to come over and play?”—as well as his numerous inept attempts to become popular. Greg is beaten up by girls, ruins the school play, and is hunted by older kids whose pickup truck Greg and Rowley accidentally scratched on Halloween, all misadventures that Freudenthal futilely attempts to enliven with zippy direction.
In its depiction of its awkward outcast characters attempting to navigate a variety of typical school locales and scenarios (cafeteria, gym class, schoolyard, suburban neighborhoods), Diary of a Wimpy Kid presents a cartoon vision of tween life as a series of skirmishes fought on social battlegrounds (no surprise that the game played at gym class is “Gladiator”). The actual conflicts that arise, however, are so mundane and reliant on mild bodily fluid gags—Greg pees on his brother, super-nerd Fregley (Grayson Russell) chases Greg with a booger on his finger—that the film seems devoid of comedic inspiration at the very moments it most requires it. A running bit involving a rancid piece of cheese left out on the blacktop (anyone who touches it is immediately cursed with the dreaded “Cheese Touch”) strains to generate the same mythic aura as A Christmas Story‘s famed pole-licking sequence. Yet what finally prevents the film from truly gaining any head of steam is Greg himself, a callous, arrogant twerp who unerringly thinks of himself first while looking down on everyone else, and who thus comes off as a wannabe-Ferris Bueller minus the charm.