Friday, March 25, 2011

It's Hard Out There for a Wimp: DIARY OF A WIMPY KID: RODRICK RULES

When we last saw 12-year-old Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon), he had just started to get situated in middle school when summer arrived. That was the main emotional journey to be found in the sweet and funny Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a surprising delight that managed to be a fairly accurate portrayal, if a bit cartoonish, of the life of a sixth-grade boy. Now here we are with a sequel, Rodrick Rules, which manages to surprise in an entirely new way. It’s a sequel that lives up to its predecessor. Of course the novelty is gone, but the charm hasn’t yet worn off. (It helps, I suppose, that they’re based off of the first two in a series of entertaining books by Jeff Kinney.) It’s a pleasure to return to the world of these characters.

This movie, shot like an amiable widescreen sitcom, is mostly devoted to following the sibling tensions between Greg and his older brother Rodrick (a nimble, energetic performance from Devon Bostick), a relatable brotherly mix of hate and love that’s buoyed considerably by the sweet chemistry between the young actors. The central tension hardly throws the focus of the movie off balance, however. The loose, anecdotal structure of the film, with its casual set-ups and pay-offs, keeps the various elements of Greg’s life in a nice balance. There’s still plenty of conflict to be found at school, where a cute new girl (Peyton List) is a source of Greg’s first real crush, adding to the struggles at home with his parents (unfailingly amusing performances from Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn), or with his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron).

There’s a sense of comfort found settling back into the rhythms of this representation of very early adolescence. It’s a bright, sunny time spent with lovable characters. About the first film, I wrote that “It simply tells a story at a child’s level and trusts the audience of kids and adults alike to relate to experiences that are, at some level, universal.” That’s true here too. There’s a sense that director David Bowers (Flushed Away) and screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah (Freaks and Geeks) have a nice handle on the mindset of kids. It’s exaggerated, but not wholly unrealistic to view this time of one's life as a minefield of potential embarrassments and misplaced confidence. The interior life of Greg, who walks us through the story with judiciously utilized narration, is convincing and funny. His near-constant threats of social mortification (he’s like a kid-sized Ben Stiller) at school, a talent show, swimming pools, a roller rink, church, a retirement center, and even in his own home invariably arise from his constant self-centered momentum. And when he does learn lessons, there’s always a good chance that they just might stick.

As a work of adaptation, the filmmakers continue to find just the right ways to tweak the source material, keeping the highlights and adding mostly prudent moments that help with the flow. There’s little change between the first movie and its sequel as far as tone and approach are concerned, although this time around the gross-out humor is dialed back just a smidge, perhaps to make room for the one or two moments that had me laughing harder than I’ve laughed at any movie in several months. There aren’t very many fresh gags to be found, but rather old dependable gags played with enough variation and liveliness that they play good as new.

It’s a wider, warmer movie than its predecessor, despite its slightly narrower focus. It doesn’t attempt to capture the entire sweep of a school year, but still manages to capture the pace of middle school (albeit slightly softened, aimed, as it is, at a demographic even younger than the main character’s). Greg is caught awkwardly in a time where little kids are awfully childish, but high schoolers are still a looming menace and adults can seem strangely distant. That’s not uncommon for kids his age, but it is uncommon to see it explored with such perceptiveness on the big screen. This is broad, immensely likable comedy. I can only hope the studio can make another movie or two with these young actors before they age out of the roles. These are rare live-action family comedies that are genuinely funny and sensitive rather than coldly calculated for maximum flatulence and CG animals spitting out pop-culture references.

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