With approximately 50 million copies of his “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” graphic novels in circulation, author Jeff Kinney has a loyal following of readers who’ve outgrown Dr. Seuss but aren’t ready for Harry Potter.
The arrival of the second live-action “Wimpy Kid” movie will give them, and indulgent parents, something to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon. The movie, which lacks much of the mischievous, subversive appeal of last year’s debut film, plays directly to the middle-school set.
Parents won’t find much to raise a smile here, but the point of attending such movies is seeing your children crack up. Most likely they will, especially if they favor poop gags, which abound.
The antihero of the series is Greg Heffley, a put-upon 12-year-old who sees his life as an unending series of humiliations. He’s a bit of a whiner and a jerk but always shows his human side, and we relate and forgive him because we’ve all been there.
The original film caught the self-pitying humor of the situation, as Greg put on pretentious airs, dumped his oafish, loyal best friend Rowley to impress the cool kids, and cowered before older brother Rodrick, a heavy-metal lunkhead.
Greg got himself into embarrassing scrapes by putting on airs, and life lessons about humility were delivered without a lot of stuffy lecturing.
“Rodrick Rules” softens Greg’s character considerably. He’s no longer an endearing, sarcastic jerk, just endearing.
Except for one running joke about giving an even wimpier classmate the cold shoulder, Greg is presented as a standard-issue nice kid who is often in over his head. His cockiness gone, he’s just a passive, reactive pipsqueak – the kiss of death for a protagonist.
In this installment, Mom insists that the squabbling siblings spend more time together in the name of family togetherness.
This leads to mild high jinks with hard-partying high schoolers, rehearsals with Rodrick’s rock band Loded Diper, a prank-filled evening at the convenience store, and a weekend spent in exile at grandpa’s retirement community. (While there, Greg squirms his way through one of the film’s more amusing crises as he’s trapped, half naked, in a lavatory full of old women in swimsuits.)
Moral instruction is ladled on as Greg learns not to cheat in school, tell fibs, or duck out on a friend in need.
Most of the original actors return, with Zachary Gordon twinkling a little too hard as Greg, Devon Bostick as his troublesome brother, and Robert Capron as the ever-cheerful Rowley. Rachel Harris (“The Hangover”) and Steve Zahn are intentionally corny as Mom and Dad.
Missing from the film is young Chloe Moretz, one of the highlights of the original, who has graduated to bigger roles in better movies.
The rest of the cast look and act as if they’ve been held back and made to repeat a grade.