2 stars (out of four)
If your stomach doesn't churn a bit after hearing the title of the children's movie "How to Eat Fried Worms," the picture itself may finish the job.
Indeed, we watch the film's main character, 11-year-old Billy Forrester (Luke Benward), devour worm after worm--fried, grilled, juiced or served up raw. This is a picture in which the barf scenes standard in the usual crude youth comedies aren't gratuitous. They're logical climaxes.
Writer-director Bob Dolman's "How to Eat Fried Worms" is based on a 1973 book regarded as -- amazingly -- a modern children's classic, written by Thomas Rockwell, the son of beloved Americana painter Norman Rockwell. The original book was simpler and a shade more palatable. There, the boy protagonist has to eat 15 worms in 15 days; in the movie, Billy has to scarf down 10 in a single day.
The reason for this gastronomic orgy is that old "Rebel Without a Cause" plot standby: the new kid in school trying to stand up to the local bully clique. Here, Billy has moved to a new suburban town with parents Mitch (Tom Cavanagh) and Helen (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) and his obnoxious little brother Woody (Ty Panitz). Billy runs afoul of 5th grade tyrant Joe Guire (Adam Hicks) on his first day, when Joe and his minions plant worms in Billy's lunchbox.
Things escalate, as they will in both elementary school and movies. Before long Billy has pitched a worm at Joe, Joe has dubbed him "Wormboy" and the two have made a foolish bet that Billy can down 10 of the little invertebrates the next Saturday, without heaving. All this will be witnessed by Joe's team, which includes dancing dork Adam (Austin Rogers, who has some slick moves) and scorekeeper crony Bradley (Philip Daniel Bolden). As Erika (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), the film's token girl, keeps saying: "Boys are so weird."
Weird indeed. Billy's tormentors keep dragging him from one locale to another on Saturday, from park grill to cafeteria to bait center, preparing the worms according to elaborate recipes with names like The Barfmallow and The Greasy Brown Toad Bloater Special--demonstrating a flair for cookery I never noticed among 5th grade boys when I was one. But Billy, initially portrayed as having a weak stomach, starts gobbling down the little squigglers apparently without trouble, generating what suspense "Worms" has to offer. The adults tend to play this movie shallow sitcom-style, which is the way it was written. But kids can be naturals on screen; Eisenberg and Rogers are the standouts here. And Dolman has assembled a somewhat hip production team. His cinematographer, Richard Rutkowski, shot "Interview with the Assassin" for Neil Burger ("The Illusionist") and the score is by Mark and Bob Mothersbaugh of Devo. Still, "Worms" has a crass, would-be heart-tugging quality that grates.
Children's literature and movies have obviously entered gamier regions since the non-wormy days of "Winnie the Pooh." But one reason Rockwell's book has kept an audience all these years--besides the fact that it's a story about conquering fears and belonging--may be that reading about eating worms on the page of a book is less graphic than observing real boy actors devouring (fake) worms on screen.
Dolman ("The Banger Sisters") tries too hard to make a mini-Farrelly gross-out movie, while, at the same time, telling a heart-warming tale of boy bonding in the "Stand by Me" mode. By the time he shows two of the guys shoving a mass of live worms down the front of their pants and writhing while their schoolmates boogie behind them, he's entered some strange realm of bad taste and good intentions that's hard to follow, and even harder to swallow. Then again, you could say that about almost everything in "How to Eat Fried Worms."
'How to Eat Fried Worms'
Directed and written by Bob Dolman; based on the book by Thomas Rockwell; photographed by Richard Rutkowski; edited by Janice Hampton; production designed by Caty Maxey; music by Mark Mothersbaugh, Bob Mothersbaugh; produced by Mark Johnson, Philip Steuer. A New Line Cinema release; opens Friday. Running time: 1:38. MPAA rating: PG (for mild bullying and some crude humor).
Billy Forrester - Luke Benward
Erika - Hallie Kate Eisenberg
Joe Guire - Adam Hicks
Adam Simms - Austin Rogers
Bradley - Philip Daniel Bolden
Principal "Boiler Head" Burdock - James RebhornCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun