‘Middle School’ Review: Pre-Teen Comedy-Drama Succeeds at Neither

Both the laughs and the tear-jerking fall flat in this herky-jerky adaptation of James Patterson’s junior-high novels

Like an overbooked, overambitious student, “Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life” tries to cram far more into its curriculum than it can handle. The film’s attempts at comedy and sentimentality are equally unsuccessful, resulting in a movie that feels more like a third-rate “Saved by the Bell” knock-off than a legitimate teen flick.

Both the younger cast members and their more seasoned adult counterparts mostly give it their all, but the screenplay by Chris Bowman and Hubbel Palmer (“Masterminds”) and Kara Holden, based on the novels by airport-king James Patterson and Chris Tebbetts, throws in more incidents and tones than director Steve Carr (“Paul Blart: Mall Cop”) can handle. The results are strained and mawkish; the film’s pre-teen audience deserves better.

Budding artist Rafe (Griffin Gluck, “Red Band Society”) spends more time creating alien worlds in his sketchbook than interacting with others, much to the consternation of his single sous-chef mom Jules (Lauren Graham) and younger sister Georgia (Alexa Nisenson). Rafe has been kicked out of several schools, and his new one is a joyless place run by martinet Principal Dwight (Andy Daly, “Review”) and his second-in-command Ida Stricker (Retta).

After Rafe’s drawings disrupt an assembly dedicated to the BLAAR – a standardized test that is Principal Dwight’s obsession – the school official cruelly destroys Rafe’s sketchbook. (“Art should be locked inside a museum, where old people can enjoy it,” says the administrator.) Goaded by best friend and co-conspirator Leo (Thomas Barbusca, “Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp”), Rafe uses his artistic skills to perpetrate a series of impressive pranks that set out to break each and every one of Principal Dwight’s rules.

The pranks themselves, which range from covering every surface with Post-It notes to putting fabric dye in the sprinkler system, wind up being the film’s highlights, even if they raise questions about why this middle school has such lax security. Where the plot machinations get gummed up are in various predictable subplots, from Rafe’s courtship of requisite cute-girl-in-nerd-glasses Jeanne (Isabela Moner, “100 Things to Do Before High School”) to Rafe and Georgia’s attempts to break up the relationship between Jules and the awful Bear (Rob Riggle).

Throw in some tacked-on anti-standardized-tests speeches and a late-in-the-game reveal about a death in the family, and you’ve got a movie that’s constantly zigging and zagging emotionally without a skilled hand at the wheel. The young performers are consistently endearing – Gluck and Barbusca have an entertaining chemistry that goes beyond their matching poofs of anime hair – but the older actors bear the brunt of the bad writing. Bear is so obviously bad news that Jules’ affection for him undercuts her character, and Daly’s performance more often than not comes off like a lukewarm impersonation of Michael Hitchcock.

To its credit, “Middle School” looks great, from the warmly autumnal cinematography of Julio Macat (“Pitch Perfect”) to the elaborate art pranks to the animated segments in which Rafe’s drawings come to life. But as every seventh grader knows, the most beautifully decorated report cover can’t make up for sloppy writing.