Rated PG for some rude humor and language
1 hour, 30 minutes
Remember Beaver Cleaver and Larry Mondello? These innocent buddies used to get into jams every week on "Leave It to Beaver," always learning (and teaching) a lesson in the process. Adjust for cultural inflation and you get the new kid flick "Diary of a Wimpy Kid."
I say, "Adjust for cultural inflation" because Wally never called his brother "turd burglar," Ward never tried dousing trick-or-treaters with water, and Beaver's crushes never read "HOWL." Still, "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" -- based on Jeff Kinney's illustrated novels -- plays it pretty safe, more "Beaver" than "Malcolm in the Middle." Think Disney Channel, if slightly less plastic fantastic.
The point is that Thor Freudenthal's movie is sitcomedic, an episodic accounting of a school year in the life of seventh-graders. It's not unpleasant for adults, who can find nostalgia in such middle-school touchstones as popularity ranking, lunch-table seating, scary local legends and gym-class horrors (plus, you get Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris as the parents). Certainly, it'll be catnip for the grade-school set. Still, with ticket prices being what they are, this generic outing isn't a very compelling reason to leave the comfort of the sofa and its basic-cable kiddie fare.
Zachary Gordon plays pint-sized Greg Heffley, whose only concern is becoming a class hero. He has a roly-poly best bud in Rowley Jefferson (Robert Capron), a sweet and loyal friend who plays along with Greg's schemes -- to a point. Naturally, nothing works for Greg. Joining wrestling leads to a series of humiliations, including being pinned by his high-strung female nemesis, Patty Ferrell (Laine MacNeil). And when he tries out for the school play, he learns he's a boy soprano, suitable not for the leads but for ... you guessed it, the tree.
Greg's rapacious pursuit of coolness makes him a selfish jerk for much of the film's running time, eventually alienating his only friend. Kids will probably root for Greg anyway, if only with the understanding that eventually he'll learn what's really important and redeem himself with a grand gesture. Perhaps that path to good karma might also win him the respect of Angie Steadman (rising star Chloe Moretz), the Ginsberg reader who's obviously wise beyond her years. Gordon is well cast to be believably uncool for his age group while also roguishly charming in a way all boys like to think they are.
Much of Greg's wit remains private in his diary, to which the audience is privy through narration. Freudenthal predictably works in a few animated bits to evoke Kinney's illustrations, but otherwise "Diary" is styleless, with old-school costuming (Converse and ringer-Ts) and Canadian locations that evoke a Rockwellian suburban America that never quite existed. Then again, Norman Rockwell never imagined what would happen if a slice of Swiss cheese stayed rotting on the school blacktop. Answer: It would have "nuclear cooties"... so not cool.