By 3-Deep (Three Beers) –
James Patterson’s books haven’t made the smoothest transitions onto the screen. Kiss the Girls and Along Came the Spider, for instance, were “meh” at best. Alex Cross made Tyler Perry’s other movies look decent in comparison, somehow, and the recently-released Maximum Ride movie adaptation is quite possibly one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. Seriously. And I’ve seen a lot of movies. Trust me.
While Patterson’s leisure reads make for quick, enjoyable airport time wasters, Patterson’s inauthentic voice becomes more apparent when brought to life on-screen. You notice the rushed plotting, the hastily-drawn characters, and cheap storytelling more when they’re away from the page. While I haven’t watched ABC’s Women’s Murder Club or CBS’ still-ongoing Zoo, word of mouth suggests they’re not much better. Patterson’s stories work best as guilty pleasures.They come out quicker than Stephen King books, and they provide very little substance. They move at a good clip, they keep your interest until the final page, then you promptly set them on the shelf and ignore them for the rest of your existence. They’re often shallow, predictable, and meet general expectations. They serve their purpose, and offer little value.
Well, someone didn’t get that memo when Lionsgate decided to bring Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life onto the big screen. Co-authored by Chris Tebbetts, the YA book series was Patterson’s attempt to get some of that sweet, sweet Diary of a Wimpy Kid cash. Did it work? I guess it did, if they made a movie. Unlike Maximum Ride, I haven’t read the book it is based upon, so my familiarity with the source material doesn’t not extend itself to the page, like it normally does for Patterson’s screen adaptations. But maybe that doesn’t matter, because Middle School carries very little of Patterson’s voice. The tone is bubbly, bright, and buoyant, which entertains itself through bathroom humor and juvenile antics. It hardly matches the grim, suspense-ridden page-turners which made Patterson a household name. In some ways, that makes it better than your average Patterson adaptation. In other ways, it makes it worse.
It follows Rafe Katchadoria (Griffin Gluck), a talented, creative artist and sensitive teenager having trouble adjusting to life after the passing of his younger brother. His precious younger sister, Georgia (Alex Nisenson), seemingly has everything together, and their mother, Jules (Lauren Graham), buries herself in her work in the culinary arts. Due to his tight bond with his cancer-riddled brother, however, Rafe has turned into a troubled child, bouncing between school after school with little regard for his homework, authority figures, or rulebooks. That’s going to be a problem when he enters Hills Valley Middle School, an oppressively orderly public education establishment run on a tight lease by Principal Dwight (Andy Daly). It doesn’t take long for Rafe to get in trouble through his rebellious art work and, much to his dismay, Dwight destroys Rafe’s lifetime of artistry when it violates one of the many rules the school is build upon.
Between his personal issues, his insufferable soon-to-be stepfather Bear (Rob Riggle) and now these limitations at his new school, Rafe isn’t going to go down without a fight. Aided by his best friend Leo (Thomas Barbusca), a fellow rebel-rouser and one of Rafe’s closest friends who coincidentally finds himself attending Hill Valley, they attempt to break each-and-every rule in the rulebook before taking Principal Dwight’s academic pride-and-joy, the annual B.L.A.A.R. (BaseLine Assessment of Academic Readiness) standardized tests, where his school consistently comes out at number one. But they can’t do it alone. They’ll need help from the school’s only AV Club member, Jeanne Galletta (Isabella Amara), whom Rafe soon becomes infatuated with, because he’s a developing teenage boy and all.
Where so many Patterson adaptations have come across stilted and bland, Middle School is surprisingly active and, occasionally, pretty inspired too. Some lively animation segments, plucked from Rafe’s notebook, provide some funny, interesting, and sometimes moving ways to get into Rafe’s conflicted head. Additionally, the talented comedic cast, which includes comedy favorites like Daly, Riggle, Adam Pally, and Parks and Rec‘s Retta, provide some much-needed energy and enthusiasm, something that’s occasionally lost in our confused, underwhelming lead actor — but I’ll delve into that more in just a bit.
Nobody provides their A-level material here, but it’s always an immense joy to see Daly on-screen, even when he’s not living up to his full potential. Ditto Pally, who does provide a warm, engaging presence as Mr. Teller, the one good, supportive teacher, in a coming-of-age film that can’t quite figure out its own emotions, much like Rafe himself. Riggle is stuck playing the douchebag stepdad role, but he owns up to it and seems to have a good deal of fun. And, again, the same can be said for Retta, who is expressive like no other performer out there today. Seriously, she can contort her face in ways I’ve never seen before. It’s fascinating to watch, no matter how often the material shorthands her and her mostly useless supporting character, Vice Principal Ida Stricker.
Unfortunately, while the supporting cast holds their weight, Gluck often holds Middle School back. He’s never particularly bad, but there’s something about his performance that’s … well, off. He’s supposed to be a little off-center based on his character’s backstory, but his delivery rarely holds any truth. Like most child performers pushed into a lead role, he’s simply not charismatic or interesting enough to carry his own feature-length film. I don’t know, maybe he’ll become a really good actor someday. But in here, he doesn’t often impress, and it often shorts the overall film of its emotional impact. I’m surprised I expected so much emotional gratification from a movie where one of the main recurring bits is a loudspeaker that farts every time the school bell rings, but when you bring a dead brother into the equation, you expect something a little more affecting than “Jeez, that stinks.” Maybe that’s just me.
In general, Middle School struggles to find its tone. It clearly has more on its mind than the Diary of a Wimpy Kid movies ever had in their three (four?) film run, but it’s never quite funny enough, awkward enough, daring enough, or gentle enough to work with the comedy and the drama that it hopes to bring to the forefront. What results, then, is a lopsided, uncomfortable movie with a really obvious plot twist halfway through that I’m kicking myself for not seeing a hundred miles away. It’s not bawdy enough to work in the humor department, and it’s not intuitive enough to win over your emotions. So it’s basically fails in two different departments, even though the overall film isn’t really all that bad. I mean, as far as these things go, it’s not terrible. It could’ve been a lot worse. It means well, it’s energetic, and it has a clear message in mind, one that actually still holds some relevance, but it handles these elements so clumsily that it barely comes together in the end. It sounds worse than it actually is, though. It’s just okay.
Middle School is a shrug of a movie, one made worse by the wasted adult talent involved. Borrowing from various other films before it, including Max Keeble’s Big Move, The New Guy, and Holes, it doesn’t have enough of an identity to separate itself from other mediocre pre-teen movies from yesteryear. It’s not as dumb, loud, or moronic as it could have been, but by not being much of anything, it fails to register at all.
The target audience might enjoy themselves well enough. There’s a good chance I would’ve enjoyed it fine at the right age. As an adult, however, it offered me nothing, and I doubt anyone over the age of 15 will find a lot to like in this fairly unremarkable movie, except maybe exhausted parents looking to please their kids for an agreeable 93 minutes. It doesn’t have long-term value, but then again, we’re talking about a Patterson adaptation here. So, maybe that’s only fitting in the end.
Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (2016) Drinking Game
Take a Drink: anytime Rafe’s drawings and animation comes on the screen.
Take a Drink: every time someone says B.L.A.A.R.
Take a Drink: every time Andy Daly or Rob Riggle’s character is a tool.
Do a Shot: during James Patterson’s cameo.
Take a Drink: after every prank. Take two every time it’s borderline impossible to pull off.
Do a Shot: for the super obvious twist that you (i.e. I) should have seen coming a hundred miles away.