This is a world where the unlucky boy Greg Heffley (Jason Drucker) will accidentally stick his hand into a poopy diaper that he cannot remove. This triggers a reaction in all of the parents to laugh hysterically in a circle and film poor Greg’s natural reaction to having touched fecal matter, posting it to every social media stream as a mockery of a meme. This is the hell our protagonist lives in, a bitter world where everything is filthy, cliché and retweeted into a nihilistic oblivion where comedy comes to die.
I’ve not seen a single Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie, but, as the fourth entry of the series, I can only fathom this is the worst of introductions. It’s the old, familiar and tired genre of the family road trip movie where everything can go wrong. Greg’s family is heading across state for Grandma’s 90th birthday, but Greg has other plans. To clear his name of the Diaper Hands meme, Greg seeks the perceived viral cleansing of appearing in a YouTube video with his idol that will be appearing at a video game convention.
His idol is Mac Digby, a tubby e-celebrity famed for playing video games, celebrated by kids the country over for his annoying catchphrase “Digby Does It.” I expect kids would love something so absurd, but I had a little more faith in even the wimpiest of kids to not change the GPS coordinates and steer their parents towards a game convention over their grandma’s birthday.
Then again, Greg’s situation is understandable considering the insufferable people he shares the journey with. His mother Susan (Alicia Silverstone) is a woman overly obsessed with her kids eating healthy, learning Spanish and not using their smartphones to an unhealthy degree. Greg’s dad Frank (Tom Everett Scott) is so fearful of mom’s reign that he attempts to hide the old trope of trying to work while on the road. Greg’s brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright) is an obnoxious teenager, driven only by the prospect of babes, drums and money for his van. Greg’s baby brother Manny (Wyatt and Dylan Walters) is little more than a walking pile of toddler cuteness.
These are all cartoon characters, fittingly portrayed as such in the illustrated bookended segments. The actors must be aware of such lacking characterizations based on their performances. Everyone speaks with a cringe-worthy acting style, where every teenager says “as if,” every father bumbles and every mother mispronounces Instagram.
The story plays out almost exactly as you’d expect, with all the typical gags telegraphed on cue. Frank says he needs quiet in the car while he takes a business call. This is code for everyone and everything to be as loud and distracting as possible, leading to the comedy of the car almost crashing. Greg has to pee after drinking too much lemonade from a plastic bottle and the next stop is 37 miles. It doesn’t take a genius to assume he’ll pee in that bottle and, yes, the bottle will indeed overflow. This bit was done better and with more of a payoff in Dumb and Dumber, but it’s not like kids have seen that movie. They apparently don’t deserve that level of comedy writing from this by-the-numbers story that treats them as stupid as its characters.
This setup for humor creates a really depressing feeling when you know a very tasteless joke is on the horizon. In a scene at a county fair, Rodrick, ever the craver of junky food, scarfs down three or so orders of deep-fried butter on a stick. Why so many? Because if he didn’t eat that much, there wouldn’t be a scene where he goes on a ride and throws up. Not after he exits the ride, of course. He must puke in slow motion on the ride so that we can watch the detailed flow of partially digested food splatter in someone else’s face. I pray this is the only time I ever witness such a sight in a movie.
Now I’m not such a stuck-up critic that I can’t laugh at the sight of vomit, poop and urine, all present in this picture in various forms. I’ve had some big laughs in the past for movies that had all these elements. But bodily fluids are best used as decoration for a joke and not the punchline. The shot of slow-motion vomit doesn’t feel as though we’re laughing at Rodrick’s choice of food and entertainment; it’s intended for us to laugh at the vomit itself considering how much of it hogs the screen as it hurls towards the foreground. To be fair, the computer-generated vomit looks surprisingly real. I bought the special effect of puked-up butter more than I did Rodrick or any character being a real human being.