[6 August 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
When you’re a wimpy kid, you want to be a less wimpy kid, or least appear to be a less wimpy kid. This is the premise of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books and movies, all of which feature the narration of the titular boy, Greg (Zachary Gordon), as he observes and tries to control what goes on around him.
The third movie, Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, begins as seventh grade ends and starts summer vacation, with Greg hoping—like all kids in all movies that start this way—that this one will be the best ever. For Greg, best means that he’ll play videogames all day, every day. All he has to do, he explains as the film provides the series’ signature stick-figures-on-diary-paper animations, is “stay a step ahead” of his father Frank (Steve Zahn) and mom Susan (Rachael Harris).
Greg being a wimpy kid, nothing goes as he plans. His effort to stay a step ahead takes place on two fronts, as Susan starts a Book Club for the neighborhood children (first up: Little Women) and Frank appears determined to get Greg and his friends to play outdoors. To avoid such obligations and, more importantly, to pursue his still-hoped-for romance with the lovely Holly (Peyton List) (which was initiated at the end of the second movie, 2011’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules), Greg trails along with his longtime best friend Rowley (Robert Capron) to The Country Club. Here, again, following on discoveries he made last year, he discovers the pleasures of the private pool as compared to the public one his family frequents (less crowding, smoothies delivered on a tray, and no unruly children peeing in the water) and tries his hand at tennis, which leads to his getting bopped in the head or other body parts repeatedly.
The tennis is a contrivance to spend time with Holly, who teaches at the club, though a few short minutes after he takes to the court, he must admit he doesn’t know how to play. Here the film pictures one of its primary lessons, that when you’re busted for lying, you should admit it, by inserting parodic slow-motion close-ups of Holly instructions to Greg. If only this were enough for him to learn. But no, he must continue to lie, and be busted, in order to fill the film’s running time with busy non-plot material.
Greg’s lies take much the same shape as his lies in previous movies. First, he and his older brother Rodrick (Devon Bostwick) lie to their parents. In order to avoid working at his dad’s office, Greg tells Frank he has a job at the club, and when Rodrick guesses this isn’t true, he blackmails Greg into getting him inside the club too. This so that he can do what Greg is doing, pant after a girl, in Rodrick’s case, Holly’s cartoonishly affected sister Heather (Melissa Roxburgh)—who just happens to need a band for her upcoming 16th birthday party. (Rodrick, I’m sure you’ll remember, sings in a group called Loded Diper: here, he ably lampoons Justin Bieber’s “Baby”).
And second, Greg and his dad lie to Susan. This constitutes some awfully standard issue wimpy-kids-will-be-wimpy-kids shtick, but it also grants father and son more time on screen together. That’s all to the good, as Zahn is easily the series’ most entertaining element. Here, Frank is no longer only red-faced and sputtering. Now, he reads Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States (a detail that comes up more than once and that you’re left to interpret as you will). And now, he’s granted a backstory, as Susan instructs him pointblank to “Be the father you wish you’d had” (which passes as the Diary of a Wimpy Kid‘s version of cultural critique).
Just so, Frank drags Greg along on a series of man-making activities—a fishing trip, a Civil War reenactment, and a camping trip with dad’s old Wilderness Explorers troop. That this experience isn’t nearly so fortifying as he remembers it will come as no surprise, that he can admit that is the lesson Frank embodies and the film keeps pounding (again, when you make a mistake, own up). Frank’s wimpishness extends to competing with his dolty bully of a neighbor (Phil Hayes), a contest that leads directly to Frank’s bringing home a dog, huge and drooly and mayhem-ready, so that he and Greg can bond over trying to keep secret a mildly gross episode involving mom’s pot roast.
This episode secures the father-son bond opposed to Susan. It’s an old school plot move, pitting roaming men against civilizing women. She means well and they know she’s right, in the end, but for now, the wimpy kids must resist, if only to illustrate their wimpishness. While you might be inclined to root for Frank and Greg, as their idiotic schemes come with the territory, you might also be inclined to hope Susan somehow breaks free.
You get that all this is Greg’s point of view, that he only sees his mom as mom, but still… it’s more tedious than you can guess to watch Susan still feeding baby Manny. He’s still mostly silent or speaking gibberish, still maybe three or fourish, and still played by five-year-old twins Connor and Owen Fielding. However you parse Manny, as the annoying little brother, as the occasion for diaper jokes and Greg’s grimaces, he’s most profoundly the signifier of mom. I repeat: she’s still feeding him.