Greg, the titular wimpy kid in Diary of a Wimpy Kid isn’t like most kids’ movie heroes. Whenever a child is at the center of a picture, he is most likely a misunderstood but mostly virtuous young soul who eventually manages to win over everybody and escape his or her outsider status. Greg, on the other hand, is really kind of a jerk, and he’s too self-absorbed to see it. That fact alone makes Diary of a Wimpy a lot more interesting than the scads of films designed to pander to that demographic. Though the film still lurches into the excess for which the genre has become known for, it’s just smart enough to keep things from getting ridiculous.
Based on the popular series of young adult novels, the movie follows Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), a kid just about to enter middle school. Greg believes that he’s destined to be rich and famous someday. Right now, however, he’s struggling to fit in at school, where everybody seems to have outgrown him, and arcane rules on interaction confound him. Greg tries one thing after another, hoping for a spot in the yearbook’s class favorites. But everything he does simply pushes him further down the social ladder.
The tropes are familiar. If you’ve ever seen a film set in school, you’ll know what to expect: kids wrangling for position at cafeteria tables, abiding by the esoteric rules that define school experiences. At its core is the same battle between the popular conformists and the streetwise outsiders that played out in almost every movie with students in them. But Diary of a Wimpy Kid is as aware of these tropes as we are, and it ends up being dismissive of all of it. Whereas most movies would have the outsider kids gaining the upper hand and achieving a measure of popularity themselves, Wimpy Kid is smart enough to avoid the easy ending. It arrives at a rather sober conclusion: people won’t always accept you for who you are, but that’s okay.
At times, the movie approaches sharp satire, skewering the feel-good half-truths reiterated by decades of movies and TV shows. But make no mistake: Wimpy Kid also revels in the juvenile. A lot of time is given to the requisite sequences that center on excretory functions. The characters are pretty thin, offering little more than the standard types that populate such films. There’s a really strange balance being achieved here, carefully stitched together by competent direction and a musical score reminiscent of the Peanuts cartoons. The performances from the kids are pretty solid. Zachary Gordon manages to be both abrasive and endearing at the same time. Robert Capron attacks everything with the same kind of enthusiasm. He really nails the film’s big scenes. Devon Bostick takes a pretty hilarious turn playing an amalgan of every horrible teenage big brother in existence.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid could stand to be a lot less frantic, a lot less reliant on the rapid fire juvenilia that tends to emerge from films that skew younger. Having said that, it’s a far more interesting film than most of what kids get these days. This is a film for the kid tired of being spoon fed the same tired messages. Because we all already know that everyone is special in his or her own way. Whether or not that translates into anything meaningful in the social jungle that is school is another story altogether. The movie exists in praise of those ostracized, never offering the false hope of peer acceptance in a society as shallow as the sixth grade. Acceptance comes much later, the movie seems to say. And that’s okay.