Monday, March 22, 2010

The Wimpy Years: DIARY OF A WIMPY KID

Too often, a family film can easily become toothless and lazy in a race to get to the lowest-common inoffensive denominator, so it’s heartening to see a family film that is not only trying, but excelling at being a fairly perceptive comedy about children. Diary of a Wimpy Kid is not dumb, it’s not safe, and it’s not stretching to include covertly adult humor to please parents. It simply tells a story at a child’s level and trusts the audience of kids and adults alike to relate to experiences that are, at some level, universal. My middle-school was not exactly like the one presented here, but the feelings were the same. Something about the combination of childhood whims and inconsistently aging peers creates a cauldron of awkwardness that manages to churn in similar ways generation after generation.

The movie is based on the first book in a series by Jeff Kinney. The books are absolutely charming, combining first-person diary entries with sweet and simple line drawings to tell the story of Greg Heffley, a boy starting sixth grade. They’re anecdotal and conversational, loosely plotted in an almost stream-of-consciousness style with an unrestricted, but highly subjective narrative that can sail backwards and forwards through fact and fantasy. It’s a small wonder of smart and sophisticated writing from a child’s point of view. It’s not weighty or dark, but rather a light and enjoyable lark. The movie gets the tone just about right, even going so far as to throw in little animated doodles and a narrating Greg in a kind of meta move that’s reasonably satisfying.

Greg is played by Zachary Gordon, a child actor in his first big role. He plays the character perfectly, with the kind of self-centered attitude, casual bouts of shallowness and wild inventiveness that, if he were older, would be considered slightly smug. At 12, though, he’s still immensely loveable, even when he’s making mischief. He’s struggling to fit in throughout the movie that shares the loose and episodic nature of the books. He’s conflicted most about his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), who is increasingly looking like a detriment to Greg’s ambitions of becoming more popular. After all, Rowley still invites people to “play” instead of “hang out.” Greg’s older brother (Devon Bostick) gives him the dubious advice to ditch the friend if he ever wants to survive sixth grade.

It’s that quest to become more popular that loosely strings the anecdotes together. Greg moves through his first year of middle school running into all kinds of characters who could easily become stereotypes, and indeed are presented as exaggerated, but keep in mind that we have an unreliable narrator and, besides, most characters are sketched in such a way that they vaguely reminded me of types of kids and teachers that I knew at that age. There’s the smallest kid in school, the stuck-up overachiever with family connections, the smart, the talented, the weird, the moronic, the appealing, the gross, not to mention the teachers who run the gamut from lazy to self-serving and pompous to casual. It all seems just about right.

This is a film of spirited performances (his parents, Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris, are especially enjoyable, as is Chloe Moretz as a too-cool-for-school seventh-grader) and lots of energy. It’s fast, light, and an enjoyably sweet delight, even though it does have two or three too many gross-out gags. Director Thor Freudenthal (Hotel for Dogs) does an admirable job keeping the movie from dragging too much and has a deft way of making the children’s performances pop just as much as the adults'. This is a consistent movie; it all feels of one piece. It’s not a movie of high highs or low lows, but it’s pitched at a level of even-keeled enjoyment that accumulates into something special.

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