Aimed squarely at the pre-teen set, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, the third film based on Jeff Kinney’s series of young-adult novels, is conspicuously devoid of any sops to the adults in the audience. Its story of titular tween Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) trying to overcome obstacles, parental and otherwise, to the enjoyment of his summer vacation is strictly for the kiddies. It’s a harmless enough exercise, though by this late date in the franchise, Heffley seems not so much wimpy as squirmy and almost maliciously devious, and as such the film shapes up into a half-hearted morality tale about taking responsibility for your actions as a sign of impending maturity, no matter how irresponsible those actions are and no matter how perfunctory the self-awareness may be.
Opening on the final day of the seventh grade, the film begins with its hero expectantly enthused, fantasizing about a summer spent entirely in front of the television playing video games, with maybe some breaks to make time with his love interest, Holly (Peyton List). Too bad his father, Frank (Steve Zahn), has other ideas. Mostly in an attempt at keeping up with the Jonses (or, at least, the “perfect” family next door), this suburban dad (and, in an odd touch, Howard Zinn reader) insists his son take up outdoor activities, whether it’s playing sports with friends or joining a Boy Scouts-like organization. The father’s inability to connect with his boy is presented as an instance of undue parental control: Ignoring the kid’s own interests, Frank tries to make his boy engage in his own.
Under these circumstances, Greg’s deceptions seem almost understandable, even if they keep blowing up in his face. When his best friend takes him to his country club where Holly also belongs, Greg decides to spend every day there, lying to his father that he got a job at that establishment. After a falling out with his friend prevents him from entering the club as an official guest, Greg keeps sneaking back in to flirt awkwardly with Holly and (unknowingly) run up a huge smoothie bill on his friend’s family’s tab.
Most of the film’s comedy consists of scenes of unpleasantness and/or embarrassment, sometimes the direct result of Greg’s misguided hustles, other times through no fault of his own. In the movie’s early going, a disproportionate number of these situations are predicated on a fear of crowds and male bodies, particularly of the hairy, overweight variety. From the claustrophobic hallways of the middle school in the movie’s opening sequence to the overstuffed public watering hole, Greg continually finds himself in uncomfortable proximity to large numbers of other figures. In the case of the local pool, the unpleasantness is compounded by a post-swim trip to the locker room, where Greg is forced to wade in between hordes of old, naked men and their unlovely flesh.
When Greg first visits the country club, he’s warned that the pool is unusually crowded on that particular day, only to take a look for himself and see that “crowded” in this context means about five people. Thus the country club represents, at least initially, an idyllic retreat from the overstuffed public arena, but even this place has its lurking dangers (good-natured men who might, in a perceived emergency, lie on top of you and perform mouth-to-mouth resuscitation). Similarly, Greg’s continued access to the club, based on the staff’s familiarity with his appearance from his time as a legitimate guest, becomes increasingly tenuous, and the film proceeds with a certain looming inevitability, as we queasily await the moment when all will be revealed and Greg is exposed as a phony. It’s a comedy of discomfort, something of a default mode in contemporary movies and television for detailing the experiences of both kids and kid-like adults. Whether this speaks to the actual experience of pre-teen awkwardness or is simply a lazy fallback is a question that Dog Days leaves unanswered, but in the largely uninspired handling of director David Bowers and his screenwriting team, it certainly feels far more like the latter.