From 2010 to 2012, a trilogy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” films were released in rapid succession, starring Zachary Gordon, Devon Bostick, Rachael Harris and Steve Zahn. Adapted from the web comic turned kids novels by Jeff Kinney, the films featured the kinds of embarrassments and toilet humor that tend to make up most middle school lore.
Five years later, a fourth film, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” is hitting theaters, with a completely new cast making up the Heffley family. Director David Bowers, who helmed the “Rodrick Rules” and “Dog Days” installments of the franchise, returns to wrangle this particular out-of-control-minivan down the freeway.
This story of a family vacation gone wrong could have just been subtitled “Road Trip,” but it turns out “The Long Haul” is an ironically apt descriptor for this film. One hesitates to refer to it as a “comedy,” as the jokes are few and far between. No, “horror” was the word that popped into mind frequently during these grim 90 minutes.
“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” is a deft exploration of the horrors of modern life in the tech-obsessed, neoliberal, advanced capitalist 21st century America; a world where social media rules our brains and behavior, and constant connectedness means constant work. This family’s road trip illustrates how America has become a polarized nation obsessed with nostalgia, gripping tight to the construct of a “real” America in light of rapid cultural change.
It’s also a terrifying cautionary tale about distracted driving — adults in the audience may cower every time one of the Heffley parents behind the wheel takes their eyes off the road or uses their phone while shepherding a teen, tween, toddler, spouse, piglet and boat trailer behind the cursed minivan. Belly laughs? More like stomach lurches. It’s truly more harrowing than “Fate of the Furious” at times, and more frustrating, since Vin Diesel never texts while driving.
Fittingly, the central conflict of the film is about technology and screen time. Mom Susan (Alicia Silverstone) confiscates all electronic devices so the family can enjoy real face time on their road trip — but dad Frank (Tom Everett Scott) hasn’t taken the days off work, while titular wimpy kid Greg (Jason Drucker) and metalhead brother Rodrick (Charlie Wright) are scheming to get to a video game convention. Greg’s determined to clean up his online reputation after he becomes the star of an embarrassing meme, and thinks a video with his hero, star gamer Mac Digby (Joshua Hoover) will do the trick. Their juvenile and selfish meddling takes the family trip from bad to apocalyptic.
The film seems to be aware of the terrors it inflicts on its audience in the name of a good time (or some kind of time.). There are several direct references to Hitchcock’s most iconic horror films, “Pyscho” and “The Birds,” for some inexplicable reason. Though ostensibly presented as an hour and a half of raucous family adventure — a “Vacation” for the PG crowd — “Wimpy Kid” is instead a dirge of unfunny scatological material, techno-anxiety and child endangerment masquerading as familial bonding. Settle in for the “Long Haul,” because this is one bumpy, miserable ride.