Friday, March 25, 2011

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules — These kids rule!

Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (2011) • View trailer for Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.11

Jeff Kinney's clever and perceptive Wimpy Kid series made a thoroughly delightful transition to the big screen last year, when Diary of a Wimpy Kid became a well-deserved hit.

That was surprising enough, given the pitfalls waiting to trap unwary filmmakers who easily could have ruined the blend of line drawings and kid-oriented wisdom that made Kinney's book — and its several sequels — so popular with its target audience. (And — don't tell anybody! — with their parents.)
Surveying the aftermath of a party they weren't supposed to host in the first
place, Greg (Zachary Gordon, left) and older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick)
are further horrified to learn that their parents will be home at any moment ...
which leaves precious little time to clean up the mess and conceal any
lingering evidence.

The even greater surprise is that the just-released sequel, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, is every bit as charming as its predecessor. All involved avoided the temptation to which so many lesser filmmakers succumb, which results in a sophomore effort that's heavier on the cruel, property-damaging slapstick and lighter on the poignant story elements that touched viewers' hearts the first time around. (Think back to Home Alone and its more-was-less sequel.) Director David Bowers, making a solid live-action debut after cutting his teeth on the animated features Flushed Away and Astro Boy, wisely resists several opportunities to crank up the mayhem; the result feels just as real-world as the first film.

Which is crucial, of course, because the whole point of Kinney's books is that his readers identify so strongly with their protagonist. Damage that relationship, and any film adaptation would suffer.

Not that this new film isn't funny. Indeed, it's often hilarious, precisely because screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah — closely following Kinney's template — play to all the adolescent-oriented catastrophes that give boys nightmares: not knowing how to approach the cute new girl in school, getting caught doing something dumb in a very public setting, and (oh, the horror!) accidentally winding up in a women's public restroom.

At its best, which is frequently, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules echoes the perfect blend of kid-size trauma and adult perspective that director Bob Clark brought to his adaptation of Jean Shepherd's A Christmas Story, so many years ago. You really couldn't ask for more.

Well, yes I could: It's also nice to see the entire cast return from the first film, particularly since everybody was so well suited to their roles. (Well ... everybody except Chloe Grace Moretz's Angie. But I guess you can't expect everything.)

Having survived the various catastrophes and angst-laden crises of his previous year, Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is relieved to enter the seventh grade, where he expects (hopes?) life will be less traumatic for him and best friend Rowley (Robert Capron). Not likely. Greg is still plagued by bratty, pig-tailed classroom nemesis Patty (Laine MacNeil) — the Margaret to Hank Ketchum's Dennis — and still suffers the geeky, weird behavior of tag-along Fregley (Grayson Russell). Plus, there's a new problem: a teacher who recognizes the Heffley name all too well, and immediately assumes that poor Greg is equally guilty by association.

Sadly, things also have worsened on the home front. Older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) has become even more arrogantly imperious as a goth-oriented drummer who dreams of rock band stardom and sneaks his mother's eye-liner when she isn't looking. Rodrick's choice of band name — Loded Diper — reflects his spelling-challenged lifestyle, which isn't heavy on book smarts.

Additionally, Greg frequently is blamed for the unrestrained bad behavior of baby brother Manny (alternately played by twins Connor and Owen Fielding), who gets away with murder because, as he so frequently insists — while sticking out his tongue — "I'm only 3."

Rodrick teases, taunts and tortures Greg 24/7, a situation that doesn't go unnoticed by their mother, Susan (Rachael Harris). She fancies herself a progressive, problem-solving adult who must live up to the reputation established by the "parental wisdom" column she writes for the local newspaper. She frequently discusses Greg by name, which serves as a further humiliation.

Dad Frank (a well-modulated Steve Zahn) just tries to keep the peace. We suspect that Frank perceives and sympathizes with his middle son's plight ... but cannot appear to take sides or show favorites.

After a typically quarrelsome exchange between Greg and Rodrick, Susan lays down the law and demands that they work harder to get along. She tries everything from bribery ("Mom bucks") to draconian punishments, but we know that her efforts will be futile. When the divide is just right, and the kids concerned are the appropriate ages, sibling rivalry is a way of life. You'd be just as likely to stop the ocean tide coming in.

That said, after a series of ill-advised skirmishes, Greg and Rodrick do achieve a truce of sorts. And as funny as things have been until now, they get even better when the older boy imparts his "pearls of wisdom" to Greg:

• Don't be good at anything you don't want to do;

• Always lower Mom and Dad's expectations;

• Never do something when someone else can do it for you.

(You have to admit, Kinney truly understands kid logic.)

Although the primary plot concerns this dysfunctional relationship between Greg and Rodrick, the film is composed of numerous, smaller episodic events: the sort of hand-smacking-forehead minor calamities that make up a kid's daily routine. That's the worst part of adolescence: the nagging certainty that every move, every decision, results in some sort of mistake ... and the fear that you're the only one making such bone-headed moves. (This is why Kinney's books are so popular, of course, because the truth of the matter is that we all endure the same minor-league humiliations ... most of which, thankfully, never are noticed as much as we fear they are.)

Greg and Rowley's sleep-over is fall-down hilarious, thanks to Greg's ill-advised choice of a DVD to watch: a lurid horror flick called The Foot, parts of which are shown for our amusement. A note being passed in class has a calamitous result, and Greg's first taste of truly public embarrassment occurs at the local roller-skating rink, where he first spies new girl Holly Hills (Peyton List). But the climactic catastrophe — the sequence destined to live forever via scores of DVD repeats — occurs when Greg and Rodrick are sent to visit their grandfather for a few days, at the rest home where he lives. I'll say this for young Gordon: He's game for anything this film throws at him.

All these high- and low-jinks are punctuated both by the stick-figure establishing scenes that readers will recognize from Kinney's books, and by wish-fulfillment fantasies that Greg has at his darkest moments (such as the desire to be an only child, who could be adopted by parents who'd really appreciate him). The latter sequences, in particular, have that delightfully droll A Christmas Story vibe.

But the formula isn't solely pranks and pitfalls. Life lessons are learned here, even when the circumstances are amusing. More to the point, these characters aren't solely defined by their occasionally ill-advised behavior. When push comes to shove, Greg steps up and does the right thing, and does so manfully; that's a lesson he learned during the various events in the first film. And Rodrick, as well, isn't a complete jerk.

Gordon is a marvelous adolescent protagonist, every bit as engaging, perceptive and haplessly trouble-prone as Fred Savage (The Wonder Years), Frankie Muniz (Malcolm in the Middle) and Tyler James Williams (Everybody Hates Chris). Bostick is similarly memorable as the pluperfect jerk older brother, and his wide-eyed "Who, me?" double-takes are to die for. A discussion with Mom involving a downstairs bathroom door is particularly droll, and it also illustrates another of Rodrick's rules: No matter what you're accused of, no matter how blatantly obvious the damning evidence, deny, deny, deny.

Harris manages to walk a fine line: She makes Susan mildly ditzy, but not so much that she slides into caricature. At the important moments, Harris delivers the sympathy — and teeth-grinding over-attention — of a real mother.

Zahn, his signature goofy grin always somewhat askance when faced with his eldest son's newest transgression, makes an equally warm father. Zahn does get one scene where he can cut loose with hilariously wounded rage, though, when Frank orders Greg and Rodrick to keep their hands off his soldier miniatures.

Edward Shearmur's soundtrack is appropriately giddy, sparkling and poignant as needed, and Kinney himself supplies the lyrics to the Loded Diper song we eventually get to, ah, experience. You'll also spot Kinney briefly, as Holly's father.

Film adaptations rarely live up to their source books to begin with: a movie that can do so, when drawing from works as idiosyncratic as Kinney's, is an even rarer bird. And that it can happen twice ... well, I can't point to any other examples. Both these films deserve to be purchased — when this new one hits video afterlife — and placed on the shelves, right alongside Kinney's books.

And I'm sure they will be.


  1. That was one funny movie I'll tell you that! I just couldn't get enough of this one...Highly recommended for Humor lovers!

  2. Hi! Thank you for this lovely post. My kids are in love with the books (I won't lie, I enjoyed them myself...) and I took them to see the movie, and even though I had this fear, that they will be disappointed with it - they truly loved it :)