With regard to look, tone, performances, and all-around execution, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules is so similar to 2010's predecessor that its very minor improvements to its template stem primarily from a lighter focus on the jerky arrogance of protagonist Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon). Whereas the last film centered on Greg's cocky attempts to become popular, and the peer embarrassments that this endeavor entailed, David Bowers's sequel (based on Jeff Kinney's novel) mercifully tones down Greg's unwarranted ego, both by having his pursuit of new blond beauty Holly (Peyton List) motivated more by romantic than clique-climbing impulses, and by considerably skewing the focus toward his battles with his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick), a high schooler who plays drums in a heavy metal band. In both threads, comedy-of-humiliation remains front and center: Greg is carried out of a roller-skating party by his father (Steve Zahn), and lands headfirst in a birthday cake; Greg sits in a chocolate bar on the way to church, which leads the entire congregation to think he crapped his pants; and Greg is forced to run through a retirement home in his tighty whities to prevent Rodrick from giving his diary (full of amorous musings) to Holly. In other words, it's a Ben Stiller comedy for the tween set.
Given that mortification born from physical awkwardness, developing hormones and calcifying social standing is an essential part of middle school, Rodrick Rules is true, in a basic sense, to the suburban experience of growing up. The problem, as before, is that it's rarely as lively and funny as it should be. The blame for that shortcoming partly falls on the shoulders of Gordon, a pleasant-enough screen presence whose outsized reactions and pratfalls are a tad too stiff and mannered to be hilarious. Yet more so, it's that Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah's episodic script is undesirably smooth around the edges; whereas an '80s version of this film would have included at least some borderline age-inappropriate material to amplify its mischievous spirit, here everything is too tame and faux-naughty to make much of an impact, a fact hammered home by a parents-are-away bash thrown by Rodrick in which teens go wild and crazy drinking soda.
If most of its bits are genial but generally limp, Rodrick Rules does create some brief sparks from the combative friction between Greg and ne'er-do-well Rodrick. Ultimately, though, it's Rachael Harris's parenting columnist mom, whether via her Elaine Benes-inspired dancing or humorously jittery exasperation at her sons' disobedience, who proves the only part of these illustrated book-based proceedings that's fully drawn.