Maybe we've gotten too accustomed to movies with plots. 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid' was loose and episodic, but little schemer Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) had a mission -- to scale his social ladder by any means necessary. It wasn't complicated, but there was at least some measure of structure. 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules' has no beginning, middle, or natural end, playing out less like an actual movie and more like a marathon viewing of a season's worth of a cheap, unfunny kids' television show.
"Unfunny" is key here. Screenwriters Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah return, this time for director David Bowers ('Astro Boy'), and they've lost whatever grasp they had on the material the first time out. Their slapdash script, coupled with Bowers' flat, point-and-shoot direction, make for a series of inconsequential scenes that go nowhere, their calculated wackiness punctuated in all of the wrong ways by Edward Shearmur's too on-the-nose score.
The film gets its title from Greg's older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostwick), a perfectly-coiffed jerk and wannabe rocker (his band's name is Loded Diper) who's determined to make his little brother's life as miserable as possible. More or less, the film is about the moments in which the two are forced to interact with each other by their mother (Rachael Harris), with varying degrees of cruelty and/or tolerance. There are a dozen rambling semi-connected sub-plots going on as well, including (but not limited to) Greg's romantic interest in new girl Holly Hills (Peyton List), Loded Diper's participation in a city-wide talent show, Greg's obsession with becoming a youtube celebrity, Mrs. Heffley's burgeoning newspaper column, and Greg's hateful treatment of Indian classmate Chriag Gupta (Karan Brar).
Where does this leave room for the awkward best friend Rowley (Robert Capron), who was such a highlight in the first film? It doesn't. The relationship between Greg and Rowley provided most of the best comedy in the original, and, boy, is it ever missed here. Unfortunately, most of the screentime is devoted to the unpleasant relationship between Greg and Rodrick, and it makes for an unpleasant movie. Rowley's in here, but not for much more action than to lip sync to the Ke$ha song "Tik Tok" in one of the film's most embarrassingly painful moments.
'Rodrick Rules' loses much of its charm by moving Greg out of his junior high school setting and into more house-bound struggles. In no way does Rodrick ever feel like a realistic teenager, and the stakes at home simply aren't high enough. The film may not be funny because there may not be any comedy gold to mine from the meager "little brother is told to get along with older brother" concept.
The desperation from some of the adult actors is palpable (Steve Zahn openly looks like he wants to cut and run in every one of his scenes). The pre-teen cast seems rudderless, without an interested hand guiding them into worthwhile comedic performances. Even the extras are visibly bored and aimless. 'Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules' is a sequel in all of the worst ways possible. It passively avoids anything resembling a good time, and coasts instead on the brand name of a book series that a lot of kids enjoy, trading laughs (and effort) for an empty-headed, quick-buck, lowest-common-denominator time at the movies.