Review

'Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul' shares the horrors of family vacations minus the fun

Five years after a trilogy of “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” movies were released in rapid succession, “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul,” is hitting theaters with a completely new cast. Adapted from the Web-comic-turned-kids-novels by Jeff Kinney, the films feature the kinds of embarrassments and toilet humor that tend to make up most middle-school lore.

David Bowers, who directed the second and third installments of the franchise, returns to wrangle this particular out-of-control-minivan down the freeway. “The Long Haul” is an ironically apt descriptor for this story of a family vacation gone wrong. One hesitates to refer to it as a “comedy,” as the jokes are few and far between. “Horror” was the word that came to mind frequently during these grim 90 minutes.

But “Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul” is a deft exploration of the horrors of modern life in the tech-obsessed, 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. Some fun.

It's also a terrifying cautionary tale about distracted driving — adults in the audience may cower every time one of the Heffley parents takes their eyes off the road or uses their phone while shepherding a teen, tween, toddler, spouse, piglet and boat trailer. 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, and doesn't bring a brood in the backseat.

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, as the intended effect is not clear). For some inexplicable reason, there are several direct references to Hitchcock's most iconic horror films, “Psycho” and “The Birds.” Though ostensibly presented as a 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 and miserable ride.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

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‘Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul'

Rating: PG, for some rude humor.

Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Playing: In general release.

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