Director Steve Carr has made a nice little living for himself directing pleasant family films. Not great family films, and certain not memorable family films, but tolerable little diversions like Daddy Day Care, Rebound, and Are We Done Yet? He also helmed Paul Blart: Mall Cop, which (given his resume) must have been part of his mid-life crisis and an attempt to get more “edgy”.
Now he brings us Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life, based on the book by James Patterson and Chris Tebbets, and it’s just as tepid as you would expect from the man who gave us Dr. Dolittle 2.
Seeming more like a bland ripoff of Diary of a Wimpy Kid (which itself was fairly bland), Middle School does nothing more than just go through the motions, making sure every stereotype and kid-movie cliche is firmly in place: every adult is an idiot or a unadulterated jerk, the nerdy girl is really a cute girl underneath those glasses, and the resident bully isn’t so tough after all.
Griffin Gluck stars as Rafe, an imaginative middle-schooler who’s been forced to transfer three times already because of disciplinary issues. When he lands at HIlls Village Middle School, the first person he meets is Principal Dwight (Andy Daly), a by-the-book taskmaster who’s more concerned about proper dress codes and high standardized tests scores than anything else. It’s an oil-and-water relationship from the start, made even more tense because of Rafe’s non-conformity.
Fortunately Rafe has a friend in Leo (Thomas Barbusca), and the two of them decide to take it on themselves to not only disregard Dwight’s authority but intentionally break every single rule in the Principal’s book. They secretly stick thousands of Post-Its in Dwight’s Office, they make the teacher’s lounge a giant ball pit, and they turn the school’s hallowed trophy case into a fish tank. The student body loves it, but Dwight is irate─you can practically see the cartoon smoke shooting out of his ears. Eventually, of course, Rafe learns a valuable lesson, the tyrant principal gets his comeuppance, and the credits roll…after a third-act twist that feels more manipulative than clever.
All in all, Middle School is a wholly uninspired movie that had potential to be something fairly clever, like a tween version of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but it falls flat. Carr’s direction is so pedestrian that large stretches are just plain boring, despite the action on screen. At one point, for example, Rafe puts paint in the school’s sprinkler system, and what could have been an all-out, color-soaked frenzy is nothing more than a brief, ho-hum moment that ends before it even begins. Except for a few random animated segments featuring Rafe’s creative drawings brought to life, Middle School is a bit of a drag.
Screenwriters Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer, who also squandered the promising premise inherent in last month’s kooky Masterminds, play things way too safe, particularly for their target audience of short-attention-span tweeners. And the cliche story (blame Patterson) brings little in the way or entertainment for either kids or their parents.
It’s enough to make you think that sitting in an actual middle school classroom would have been more fun.