It’s clear from the sigh-heaving title that “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” wants very badly to commiserate with its young target audience. And you’d think that the movie would be on the right track in chronicling an imaginative misfit’s quest to run his school’s draconian rule book through the prank-filled shredder. But this aged-up, comedically flat adaptation of James Patterson’s kid-lit novel is hardly in a class with templates like “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” and “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Some flashes of poignancy, surprisingly, are the biggest thing the film has going for it, shoehorned though they are into the uninspired mischief.
Griffin Gluck (TV’s “Private Practice”) plays Rafe Khatchadorian, an artistic kid whose love of outlandish doodling has gotten him kicked out of a couple of schools, and left him on a short leash at his new one. The character and his ostensible offenses don’t feel particularly subversive, but Gluck does a bit to sell this undercooked fiction with sprinkles of scoffing expressiveness. And Andy Daly (“Modern Family”) certainly works hard to punch up the conflict as Rafe’s nemesis, Principal Dwight, a bureaucratic nincompoop who keeps an acid bucket handy to dispose of student notebooks colored outside the lines.
The junior injustice of it all eventually sends Rafe on his epic prank tear, egged on by Leo (Thomas Barbusca), a kindred spirit who’s also just landed at the school. (You’ll recognize Barbusca from Geico’s Peter Pan ad spot — and be similarly amused or annoyed.) While a couple of gags offer some visual spark, colorfully leaving their mark on dour corridors, most of what we get from director Steve Carr (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”) is underwhelming. It’s just part of a list of comedy opportunities that are squandered, along with Rafe’s recurring, elaborate animated fantasies, and cast contributions from Rob Riggle as Rafe’s blowhard stepdad-to-be, Adam Pally as a sympathetic hipster teacher, and Efren “Vote for Pedro” Ramirez as a thanklessly cast custodian.
The film’s lone strength is the fleeting dramatic scenes offering a little back story — and pathos — on Rafe’s home life with his sweetly understanding single mom (Lauren Graham, who you’d guess wouldn’t have bothered otherwise). But these deftly played moments feel glaringly at odds with the cartoonish handling of, say, Riggle’s verbal abuser. No, “Middle School” isn’t a diversion that’s going to help those crummy ’tween years go by any more quickly.
MIDDLE SCHOOL: THE WORST YEARS OF MY LIFE
Directed by Steve Carr. Written by Chris Bowman, Hubbel Palmer, and Kara Holden, based on the book by James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts. Starring Griffin Gluck, Andy Daly, Lauren Graham, Rob Riggle, Thomas Barbusca. At Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs. 92 minutes. PG (rude humor throughout, language, thematic elements).Tom Russo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.