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Diary of a Wimpy Kid should've been titled Diary of a Selfish, Dishonest Punk. That's not exactly a knock against the kid-friendly comedy, directed by Thor Freudenthal from the best-selling series of books by cartoonist Jeff Kinney. It's just an observation. Greg Heffley (played by Zachary Gordon) is almost like the Larry David of the junior high set -- scheming, self-absorbed, prone to lying and manipulating situations to get his own way. I have no idea if that's how Kinney characterized Greg in the books, but it makes for a unique protagonist for a family film. I'm accustomed, through a lifetime of movie-watching, to seeing good kids become social outcasts through no real fault of their own. Diary of a Wimpy Kid's Greg is so selfish that everything that befalls him feels like karmic retribution.
I don't think that's a weakness; that's just the way it is here. Not to spoil anything, but even Greg's big opportunity for a selfless, redeeming act at the film's finale has him lying to everyone at his school, then literally calling them all stupid. The strange thing is that the filmmakers seem unaware of the character they've created on screen, something akin to watching The Wonder Years if it starred Eric Cartman instead of Kevin Arnold.
While I don't really feel like Greg's questionable morals hinder the film, the screenplay's rambling, episodic approach doesn't help it. The movie is about Greg's desire to climb a junior high social ladder of his own creation, a 1-to-200 ranking system where he sees himself in the top twenty, and his best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) hovering around the bottom fifty. This means of course that he'll gladly tromp all over his relationship with his best pal in order to appear cool to a bunch of people he doesn't even really know, taking part in a series of extracurricular activities that he's in no way suited for.
Rowley, on the other hand, just goes out there and behaves like a normal (totally awkward) kid, and reaps the benefits of being likable and unassuming. This infuriates Greg to the point that he starts actively trying to ruin Rowley's rising popularity. It doesn't make Greg a Wimpy Kid; it makes him an Evil Kid, which is a pretty valid portrayal of how overly dramatic and petty kids can be at the junior high age.
It would all be unpleasant if it wasn't funny. Diary of a Wimpy Kid has a zippy sitcom tone that reminded me a lot of Malcolm in the Middle. Many of the big laughs come from tiny, throwaway gags (and conversely, many of the flattest gags have the biggest set-ups). Kids' comedies routinely go for the easiest gross-out jokes, and those are here for sure (there's an extended plot point about a rotten piece of swiss cheese), but there are also funny character beats and well-timed edits and sight gags. If you're a parent who's been forced to sit through a barren desert of painfully unfunny family comedies, Diary will feel like an oasis.
I feel like special credit should be given to Robert Capron, the 12-year-old actor playing Rowley. What was created as a cartoon character, a chubby pre-teen with a bowl haircut who hasn't quite made the transition from childhood to adolescence, feels like a remarkably real person. Many times, Rowley's blissful ignorance is the element that keeps Diary of a Wimpy Kid from feeling too mean-spirited. Capron plays him about as realistic as he possibly can. Considering that he's supposed to be a bit of a joke in Greg's eyes, Rowley's charm ends up making Greg seem even worse.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid might lead some parents into having discussions with their kids about reaping what you sow, but it's not Freudenthal's intent to inspire a conversation about personal integrity. He just wants Diary to make you laugh, and it does. Kids will like it for sure, but I hope (for our future's sake) that they can recognize how self-centered and shallow Greg is.