Tired Slapstick

The goofy humor of the latest Wimpy Kid movie can’t even get a young audience laughing

The measure of any comedy is how often people in the audience laugh. Uh-oh! At a packed preview screening of Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, the third entry in the popular film series based on the extremely successful book series by Jeff Kinney, there was more silence than laughter.

But it gets worse. Filled with teen and pre-teen actors, slapstick situations, and bright colors, the movie is, as you know going in, blatantly aimed at young viewers. And well over half of that uncomfortably quiet audience was in the 4-to-10-years-old range.

Part of the problem is that the story’s protagonist, 14-year-old Greg (Zachary Gordon) just isn’t very likeable. With summer vacation looming at the film’s start, he makes it clear that the three months between school’s end and school’s start will be about him – friends and family need not get in the way. It’s to be a time of playing video games and, who knows, maybe getting to know cute pal Holly (Peyton List) a little better. These are his priorities and we’re expected to go along with his selfishness.

Most of the problem revolves around the script’s writers, Maya Forbes and Wallace Wolodarsky, who seem to suffer from a kind of attention deficit disorder one might expect to be more common in their audience rather than the writers themselves. They introduce a plotline, say something about the rocky relationship between Greg and his dad (Steve Zahn), then jump into Greg’s habit of lying to most everyone he knows, then bring a dog onto the scene for no other reason than to initiate some mayhem. These strings just don’t show any connection, but they keep coming – hey, let’s have a disastrous father-son fishing trip, let’s jump to a less-than-amusing amusement park set piece. And in order to fill out the film’s running time, they end up returning to the same scenarios many times over.

To be fair and honest, I’ll admit that there are a couple of funny, but forcefully squirmy moments, the best of which involves some unnecessary resuscitation in a swimming pool setting (right, if it isn’t busy enough, half of the story gets into some fish-out-of-water stuff at a ritzy country club).

Still, a chunk of this might have been watchable if director David Bowers, who made the previous Wimpy Kid films — which have done well enough at the box office to keep the sequels cranking — had a way with actors, or at least had a cast that knew how to do more than mug for the camera. Steve Zahn resorts to popping his eyes open more than humanly possible. Zachary Gordon, in the lead, continues to wear either a glum face or a variety of over-the-top expressions reminiscent of Tippi Hedren reacting to the gas station exploding in The Birds. But alas, this isn’t Hitchcock. Far from it, actually.

If there’s a message here, it’s that lying doesn’t pay. But that message is swallowed up by everyone, from filmmakers to actors, trying too hard to be funny, and failing.