Jeff Kinney’s popular “visual novel” series Diary Of A Wimpy Kid converts a preteen boy’s everyday traumas into a charming combination of stick-figure sketchbook and irreverent running commentary. Adapting them for live-action features is trickier than it seems, partly because of the books’ episodic nature and partly because these journals are the boy’s cartoon-y vision of the abuse he weathers at home and at school. The first Diary Of A Wimpy Kid movie fell into both traps, lurching forward on disconnected bits of slapstick and gross-out gags, and making real-world grotesquerie out of its hero’s crude sketches. The sequel, Diary Of A Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules, isn’t motivated to change the formula in the least, but it’s ever-so-slightly more palatable, if only for being less of a total spazz.
Looking just as undersized and feckless as he did a year ago, Zachary Gordon returns as the picked-on diarist, who hopes that seventh grade will treat him better than sixth. Though he hangs out with the geek crowd—his best friend (Robert Capron) is a portly outcast who wants to be a magician and another buddy is so obnoxious that the entire class pretends like he’s invisible—Gordon dreams of advancement in the middle-school caste system. His ticket might be a sweet-natured blonde girl (Peyton List) who’s too new to the school to recognize his dweeb status, but even with her he isn’t the smoothest operator. At home, Gordon’s biggest problem is his older brother Devon Bostick, who bullies him relentlessly, and all the more when their mother (Rachael Harris) demands they spend more quality time together.
Making the sibling conflict the focus of Rodrick Rules gives Diary Of A Wimpy Kid more direction than its predecessor, though not necessarily more credibility or insight; the epic spats and bonding sessions between Gordon and Bostick are all so rigorously calculated they squeeze out the possibility of fresh observations. Most of the jokes involve Gordon humiliating himself in front of a crowd, whether dashing through a retirement home in his underwear or delivering his brother’s old “F” paper as an oral presentation. He seems doomed to live out a different worst-nightmare scenario every day until he gets through puberty. It’s hard not to watch the Wimpy Kid movies through webbed fingers.