Roger Ebert once argued that the devolution of children’s entertainment from the Lassie films to the crude slapstick of See Spot Run suggested that “the national taste is rapidly spiraling down to the level of a whoopee cushion.” Indeed, it’s true that gags involving urine, excrement, and vomit are practically de rigueur for comedies targeted at the elementary-school set, and David Bowers’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul is certainly no exception. Set during a disastrous cross-country road trip taken by the wimpy Greg (Jason Drucker) and his family, the film features more than its share of bodily excretions, including Greg peeing into a plastic bottle in front of his whole family, a piglet’s poop befouling the air of the family van, and CGI puke splashing onto a man’s face inside a Gravitron.
While the vulgarity of such gags is sometimes off-putting, the fundamental problem with The Long Haul, the latest film based on Jeff Kinney’s popular book series, isn’t so much the grossness of its humor as the laziness with which it’s executed. A fart gag can be funny, but Bowers’s listless direction and slack comic timing drains the energy out of the script’s already underwritten punchlines. With its wispy plotline and sketchily drawn characters, the film leans heavily on out-sized slapstick to fill in the gaps, to mostly frenzied and lead-footed effect. One inspired set piece—a Rube Goldberg-style chain of mishaps that keeps distracting Greg’s dad, Frank (Tom Everett Scott), from an important phone call—demonstrates Bowers’s capability of pulling off well-oiled comedic escalation, but this choice moment of lunacy only serves to throw the haphazardness of the rest of the film into sharper relief.
The Long Haul is peppered with observations about the role of technology in contemporary kids’ lives, including Greg’s idolization of a PewDiePie-like gaming personality named Mac Digby (Joshua Hoover) and the withdrawal symptoms the family faces when Greg’s mom, Susan (Alicia Silverstone), forbids them from using any devices on their road trip. Such details suggest a potentially rich comedic vein that the filmmakers only briefly tap into, preferring instead to indulge in tried-and-true methods of rambunctious slapstick. But in the film’s best gag—a running bit about Greg finding Internet fame after a video of him with a diaper stuck to his hand goes viral—they manage to split the difference between these two tendencies, finding a happy medium between the scatological and the satirical. It’s a shame Bowers and co-screenwriter Kinney couldn’t strike this note more often.