Friday, June 10, 2011

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer: Dumb and dumber

Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer (2011) • View trailer
Three stars. Rating: PG, for no particular reason
By Derrick Bang

Films adapted from popular children’s books come in two distinct flavors: those taking place in our real world — or at least a close approximation — and those occupying a warped fantasyland with no semblance of authenticity.
Judy (Jordana Beatty, center) and her younger brother, Stink (Parris Mosteller)
cautiously dig into a dessert fondue of sliced wieners, fruit syrup and breakfast
cereal: merely one of the concoctions prepared by their free-spirited Aunt Opal
(Heather Graham).

Last summer’s Ramona and Beezus was an excellent example of the former: a sweet and respectful handling of Beverly Cleary’s famed characters, with a storyline that dealt with kid-oriented crises such as a parent’s lost income or the death of a family pet. I also have fond memories of 2005’s big-screen rendition of Because of Winn-Dixie.

Director John Schultz’s handling of Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer, in great contrast, is aggressively silly from the first frame. This is kid-oriented entertainment aimed solely at moppets who watch Nickelodeon specials in order to see big-name stars slimed with green glop, and who firmly believe — as this script demonstrates, time and again — that most adults are clueless numbskulls.

Thus, as a typical example, we’re treated to a limp-noodle aunt who can’t drive, but nonetheless plops her niece and nephew into the back seat of the family station wagon — without seatbelts, of course — and charges through red lights, creating all sorts of vehicular havoc before crashing into an outdoor display and watching as the elephant head from a giant sign impales the hood with its tusks.

Later, the same aunt utterly trashes the family living room while creating one of her many “artistic masterpieces” ... and nobody seems to care, or even notice.

And so on, in a similar vein.

Not my cup of tea, and much too reminiscent of the ghastly, pratfall-laden, live-action “comedies” that nearly sank the Disney Studios in the late 1960s and ’70s. Those films also involved imbecilic adults and the destruction of considerable personal property, usually while hailing a young protagonist as some sort of misfit hero.

One must assume that novelist Megan McDonald, on whose books this film is based, wanted it this way; she co-wrote this script with Kathy Waugh. Yes, McDonald’s Judy Moody books are more opulently farcical than those from, say, Beverly Cleary; Judy is much more given to hilariously theatrical gestures of defiance, disappointment and disgust. Nothing major ever goes wrong in Judy’s world; her perceived traumas are the stuff of superficial nonsense, such as a growing concern that her hoped-for “perfect summer” may turn out to be dull, dreary and discouraging.

The film opens as third-grader Judy (Jordana Beatty) and her classmates are released for the summer, following the final day of school. Judy has big plans for the next several months, thanks to a carefully composed chart of thrill-laden dares. But her expectations are shattered when best friends Rocky (Garrett Ryan) and Amy (Taylar Hender) reveal their own impending activities: respectively, a session at circus camp and a trip to Borneo, to “help save a lost tribe.”

This leaves Judy stuck with pesky younger brother Stink (Parris Mosteller) and “second-best friend” Frank (Preston Bailey).

A word about the latter:

Poor Frank, a bespectacled young fellow who clearly idolizes Judy, does not deserve the indifference and sloppy-seconds ’tude she frequently hurls in his direction. And while this could — should — be an excellent teaching point in a story of this nature, it doesn’t work out that way. A half-hearted apology late in the game, generously accepted by Frank, does not compensate for Judy’s constant coldness in the face of his unswerving loyalty.

But that sort of real-world issue isn’t on the radar in a film of this nature, which spends far more time with Judy’s looney-tunes Aunt Opal (Heather Graham). Due to a family crisis, Judy and Stink’s parents must leave them in Opal’s care: a decision indescribably daft, even by this story’s standards. Mom and Dad obviously know all about Opal’s, ah, various failings ... and still they’re willing to trust their children with her?

Right, right ... we are, after all, in La-La Land.

Stink spends all his time preoccupied with a hunt for Bigfoot, which supposedly has been sighted near their home town; the boy devises various schemes and traps that involve tempting the elusive creature with peanut butter.

Judy, meanwhile, tries to achieve “thrill points” with Frank’s often hesitant participation: tight-rope walking across a nearby stream; riding the biggest, fastest roller coaster in the state; and attending an all-night horror movie fest at the downtown theater (in costume, of course). Nothing works out quite the way Judy intends, which is the lesson that does emerge from this story: Fun cannot be excessively planned or overly analyzed. It just happens.

Beatty is a captivating young heroine, with her raised eyebrows, rolled eyes and exasperated expressions. She also makes Judy’s arms-length relationship with her younger brother feel right. Most importantly, Beatty deserves credit for keeping her character as likable as possible, given Judy’s often thoughtless and rude treatment of other people.

Graham, however, is badly miscast as Aunt Opal. Graham simply isn’t properly ditzy; she makes Opal’s behavior look uncomfortably deranged, rather than cheerfully eccentric. I kept thinking how much better this role would have been handled by, say, Joan Cusack.

Mosteller is a hoot as the irrepressible Stink, and Bailey brings just the right amount of aggrieved dignity to poor, second-string Frank.

Jaleel White contributes all sorts of delightful energy to his performance as Mr. Todd, Judy’s favorite schoolteacher; it’s a shame White isn’t in more of the film.

Some of the incidental details are fun, such as the way Judy’s mood ring reflects her disposition, or the speed with which her decorated “message shirts” echo recent events in her life. And the animated renditions of Judy’s flights of fancy are marvelous; the film could have used more of those, as well.

More often than not, though, Schultz eschews such clever subtlety for overly broad, stunt-laden sequences ... no surprise, coming from the guy who directed 2005’s ill-advised black riff on The Honeymooners and 2009’s way-dumb Aliens in the Attic. This is not a director given to sensitivity or restraint. He also doesn’t assemble his film terribly well; Judy’s various adventures are clumsily stitched together, with little effort at continuity. Each scene just sorta-kinda plops into the next one.

In an effort to mitigate what may sound like cranky mean-spiritedness, I’ll readily admit that Judy Moody and the Not Bummer Summer is harmless, (mostly) good-natured, laden with kid-oriented energy and joyfully harebrained. Very young viewers will have a great time, but parents will find very little to hold their interest.

Which, in fairness, isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

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