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Stuck in the middle

The rivalry between Greg (Zachary Gordleft) brother Rodrick (DevBostick) escalates “Diary Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.”

The rivalry between Greg (Zachary Gordon, left) and brother Rodrick (Devon Bostick) escalates in “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules.”

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‘Diary of a wimpy kid: Rodrick rules’ ★★★

Greg Zachary Gordon

Rodrick Devon Bostick

Rowley Robert Capron

Mom Rachael Harris

Dad Steve Zahn

20th Century Fox presents a film directed by David Bowers. Written by Gabe Sachs and Jeff Judah, based on the series by Jeff Kinney. Running time: 95 minutes. Rated PG (for some mild rude humor and mischief). Opening today at local theaters.

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Updated: June 23, 2011 12:25AM

The world of Wimpy Kid Greg Heffley is so isolated from 21st century problems and so consumed with Eisenhower-era concerns, only a couple of techno-references told me it was set in modern times.

You’re on the verge of teendom. Your big brother’s a jerk, your best friend consistently out-nerds you, you’ve got a seemingly hopeless crush on the cute blond girl who just moved to town and your teacher thinks you’re a slacker? If these are your stress points in 2011, over all you’re one lucky tweener.

“Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules” is so sweet-natured that when seventh grader Greg’s parents leave town and his older brother throws a party for half the high school, the hijinks never escalate past the point of teenagers TP’ing the front yard and consuming mass quantities of unhealthy snacks and soda. Considering that mom and dad would have been in high school during the “Risky Business” era, how appalled are they gonna be when they come home and find pretzels on the floor or even a problem with bathroom door?

Based on another entry from the popular series of books by Jeff Kinney and almost a year to the day after first “Wimpy Kid” movie was released to mild critical and box office success, “Rodrick Rules” picks up the story as Greg (a natural and likable Zachary Gordon) and his best buddy, the corpulent and sunny Rowley (a very funny Robert Capron) enter the seventh grade, grateful they’re no longer on the bottom rung of the middle-school ladder.

Greg’s mom (Rachael Harris) writes a family-issues column for the local newspaper filled with false impressions of her own brood, and Greg’s dad (Steve Zahn) seems so out of it, you wonder if he’s sneaking out to the garage to light up a joint every night (but of course nothing like that would ever happen in a “Wimpy Kid” story). Well-intentioned and dim in a sitcom sort of way, they don’t seem to have the slightest clue as to how to parent their children. Dad wanders around as if he’s a guest in his own house and shows passion only when the kids mess with his Civil War re-enactment figurines, while mom’s main hobby appears to be embarrassing her children in public between bouts of dubious parental decisions, e.g., rewarding Greg and Rodrick with “Mom Bucks” for getting along with each other (the Mom Bucks can be instantly exchanged for real money, so what’s the point?) and “punishing” them by leaving them alone in the house for the weekend, leading to the aforementioned wild and crazy party, which never escalates beyond a conga dance and some kisses on the cheek. Who ARE these kids?

Directed with a light touch by David Bowers, augmented by a catchy score and occasionally featuring some amusing drawings as Greg voices over entries from his diary, “Rodrick Rules” centers on Greg’s contentious relationship with his dim-witted, guyliner-wearing older brother, who plays drums in an awful band and delights in torturing Greg, mainly by humiliating him in public. Sometimes the gags get a little mean-spirited, beyond the usual “that’s what brothers do” stuff. And we’d have a little more sympathy for Greg if the kid was a bit nicer to the puppy-dog loyal Rowley and not so mean to Chirag, an Indian kid who seems to be one of the only minorities in town. Chirag makes one crack about Greg’s slim-to-none chances with Greg’s supercrush Holly, and Greg gets the entire school to go along with a practical “joke” in which they all pretend Chirag doesn’t exist? That’s some pretty serious psychological bullying from a supposed wimp.

Over all, though, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules” is that rare film that addresses kids of a certain age without being condescending. Even though Greg and company are living in Movieland, where nothing really bad ever seems to happen and even the meanest people aren’t all bad, the story is peppered with uplifting messages about family, friendship and trust, the physical comedy will have the typical 10-year-old cackling with glee and the performances are nicely executed.

There’s nothing the least bit heavy in the Wimpy Kid’s diary. Even the dead bird joke ends with the bird coming back to life and dropping some well-timed poop on a few heads.

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