In the first few minutes of the briskly comic family movie Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, a sequel made inevitable by the unexpected box-office success of 2010’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid, the wimpy kid himself, seventh grader Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) takes a nosedive into a little girl’s birthday cake. “You jerk,” she says, surveying the wreckage. Having read three out of the five books of Jeff Kinney’s heavily illustrated, hugely popular Wimpy Kid series aloud to my child, I’d be inclined to agree with her assessment. More often than not, Greg Heffley is a jerk.
But he’s considerably less so in his cinematic incarnation than as the stick figure Kinney sketches. While reading, I was often compelled to pause and point out to my young audience that no one should lie, cheat, misuse the English language or treat their best friend the way Greg does. Mainly because of his mean tendencies — Greg is an older Calvin without the vulnerability of Hobbes — I finally banned the books until my kid reaches a less impressionable age. But the big-screen Greg has grown on me, even more so after this second film, directed by David Bowers (Astro Boy).
The first film used Greg’s evolving relationship with his childhood best buddy Rowley (the appealing Robert Capron), a sweet, innocent boy who still speaks enthusiastically and mortifyingly about how pretty his mom is, as the narrative push for a story that otherwise is mostly about how mundane and miserable middle school is. After a rift, Greg kind of, sort of learned his lesson and now treats Rowley with a little more respect. The new film focuses on Greg coming to terms with his teenage older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick). A drummer in an awful heavy-metal garage band called Loded Diper, Rodrick loves eyeliner and could sleep away the entire day if left to his own devices.
Their parents, Susan (Rachael Harris) and Frank (Steve Zahn), are not pushovers, but they’re trusting and foolhardy enough to go away for the weekend with their 3-year-old and leave Greg and Rodrick to their own devices, hoping to foster some brotherly bonding. Rodrick promptly hosts a raging party and locks Greg in the basement. Bostick, who looks like a boy version of Juliette Lewis, plays Rodrick with such an irresistibly ferocious energy that even the boy’s basic idiocy — he spells door “dore” — has a sort of charm about it. Actually the whole family is charming, from Harris’ appealingly down-to-earth Mom to Zahn’s more skeptical Dad, although from the way Zahn keeps opening his eyes wider and wider, you wonder if he is trying to stay awake. He’d better; it seems likely this franchise will keep going, although future filmmakers will have to move fast. Gordon in particular is growing like a weed.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules is full of lively slapstick, the best of which might be Greg’s running through a nursing home in his underwear. There are nods to modernity, including the incorporation of texting and uploading silly videos to YouTube, but the movie never goes overboard with it. Susan, for instance, writes an advice column about raising boys, but she does it for the local paper rather than a mommy blog. There’s something old-school about this view of American adolescence.
Maybe that’s why Rodrick Rules often feels like a mainstream version of that wonderful short-lived television series, Freaks and Geeks. (Actually, there’s a better reason: screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, who wrote both the first film and this one, are both producing and writing alums of the show.) That show’s subtlety appears here as well, despite the sitcom-style packaging. For instance, when brotherly bonding does occur, it is meted out carefully enough to feel uncontrived and, as these things are, a work in progress. And the perpetual danger of embarrassment that permeates junior high is very Freaks and Geeks. Greg’s crush, Holly Hills (Peyton List), passes him in the halls and calls out “Hi, Fregley.” He nods and keeps walking in quiet horror. Fregley (Grayson Russell) is the biggest loser in school. Holly thinks he’s Fregley. The gym teacher has overheard. “That’s gotta hurt,” he says as he passes Greg. It does. It’s also good for a laugh. I might have banned the books, but I won’t do the same for the movies.