Greg Heffley (Zachary Gordon) is a thoroughly modern middle-school kid who is self-conscious and articulate enough to narrate his life and feelings in a journal in Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The punchline of his story is that Greg does not see himself as the "wimpy kid" of the title, but the viewer does.
Director Thor Freudenthal last delivered tame family comedy in 2009's Hotel for Dogs. He does so again here, although some families might squirm at the family dynamics and lack of discipline portrayed by the Heffley clan. Greg's parents are played by strong comedic actors Steve Zahn and Rachael Harris, but both are wasted here because in this film, life lessons are drawn from school instead of family. Greg's two brothers supply comedic fodder and make his life more difficult: teenage brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) torments him at every turn, modeling the role Greg takes toward baby brother Manny.
Greg's most formative relationships are with his peers, whom he seeks to impress, deceive, and use in various ways throughout the movie in his quest to raise his self-defined rating on the middle-school popularity scale. Greg decides on his first day that students rank from 1 to 200. He assumes he has the potential to make it to No. 1, since everyone else is-in his words-"a bunch of morons." Naturally, Greg's attempts to improve his ranking (signing up for wrestling, safety patrol, theater) tend to backfire in embarrassing and frustrating ways because Greg, despite his high opinion of himself, has no idea how to be "cool."
Greg ends up learning a lesson about making the right choice and standing against popular opinion. The emphasis is less on "being yourself" and more on not using other people to seek your own means, which is a nice twist on a movie cliché. Along the way, there are plenty of low-brow comedic gags, many of them involving potty humor or children in dangerous situations, so this PG-rated film is not for every family.
-Alicia M. Cohn is a writer in Lenexa, Kan.