How to Eat Fried Worms
One thing I certainly cannot criticize the new family film, How to Eat Fried Worms, for is that it lives up to its title. There is much digesting of the little squirmers during the course of the film, more so than any 90-minute long movie probably needs. That being said, what I can criticize the movie for is being a loud, annoying, and overly loose adaptation of a children's novel that is loved by many. In bringing the book to the big screen, writer-director Bob Dolman (The Banger Sisters) has removed all the joy from the source material, and instead has given us an overly crude and juvenile comedy that will appeal only to the 10 and under set. Without the familiar title attached to lure in audiences, this movie wouldn't stand a chance. With so many better family films out there, why would any parent want to sit through something like this?
The plot (such as it is) centers around an elementary school kid named Billy Forrester (Luke Benward) who is forced to move into a new town and a new school when his dad (Tom Cavanagh) gets a new job. Billy is not happy at the idea of being a new kid, and sure enough, the second he rides his bike up to his new school, the local bully Joe (Adam Hicks) targets him. What starts as a childish prank, when Joe and his friends secretly replace the drink in Billy's thermos with some freshly dug up earthworms, quickly escalates out of control when our hero tries to act cool and pretends that he eats worms all the time. Joe the bully calls Billy's bluff, and challenges him to a bet where he will have to eat 10 worms in one day this coming Saturday. Having no one on his side except for the sweet school outcast girl, Erica (Hallie Kate Eisenberg), Billy is forced to take the challenge in order to stand up to Joe's bullying.
How eating 10 worms in a single day proves anything about our hero's worth, your guess is as good as mine. Even if Billy wins the bet (the prize being that if Billy eats all 10 of the worms, Joe has to show up to school on Monday with worms in his pants), wouldn't that in fact make him the target of even more bullying? In fact, How to Eat Fried Worms seems confused about what message it wants to bring forth to children. It tells us we should stand up to bullies by doing whatever stupid dare they want us to do. It will somehow make Billy cool to the other kids that he saw Joe's challenge, and the kids will respect him. If that doesn't make any sense to you, then try this. The movie then switches gears and tells us that we are supposed to sympathize and be nice to bullies, because they have really crummy home lives, and they act out to deal with the abuse they get at home. (Joe has an older brother who teases him.) Okay, so we're supposed to stand up to bullies by taking on their humiliating challenges and degrading ourselves, but we're also supposed to stand up for them as well, because they're just misunderstood? I'm still trying to figure out what message we were supposed to leave with this movie, other than worms really do not taste good no matter how you try to prepare them. And I don't think anyone needs an entire movie in order to inform them of that.
How to Eat Fried Worms is a plotless, 90-minute long gross out joke in search of a point. Once the bet is set about 20 minutes into the movie, the remaining 70 minutes is a stomach churning and endless series of close up shots of worms being slurped, swallowed, ground up, chewed up, and "flavored" with everything from lard to hot sauce to an omelette. I'm sure kids in the single digit age group will find this stuff hilarious, but any adult or somewhat mature teenager will probably be squirming in their seats as much as the little earth crawlers do in this movie. The kids keep on screaming how gross it is (as if we don't know that already), and the movie keeps on coming up with different ways to show kids doing cruel things to worms and to each other. This is one pointless, ugly and vile movie, and the fact that it tries to attach a message about respecting others is almost as disgusting as anything in the movie itself, as it obviously exists solely to gross out and nothing more. The characters are a mere afterthought (the kids are just one big batch of cliches and obnoxious screamers), the adults are downright idiots (there's a spaced out teacher, an ignorant principal, a crazy old hag who runs a bait shop, and some clueless parents), and the entire movie has the look and production values of a Saturday morning special that would be right at home on the Nickelodeon channel. Bob Dolman's flat and characterless direction doesn't help matters much, as he only seems interested in graphic sight gags of worm abuse.
A tasteless movie like this needs a bland cast, and Fried Worms does not disappoint in this department. Luke Benward is passable as the put-upon hero, but we never truly sympathize with him as much as we should. This is most likely because the movie makes him out to be an idiot, going back to the whole why would eating 10 worms make you popular thing I mentioned earlier. His parents, portrayed by Tom Cavanagh and Kimberly Williams-Paisley, are about as fleshed out and interesting as a mom and dad from a 1950s family sitcom. The dad, in particular, seems to hail from the world of Leave It to Beaver, as we never really learn what he does at work, and almost every scene he's in revolves around him sitting down, putting his arm around his son, and having a heartfelt talk while sappy music plays on the soundtrack. The other kids in this movie are generally a screaming chorus that the screenplay does very little to develop. Other than a pointless and unnecessary scene where a couple of the kids play a dancing video game at a convenience store that comes literally out of nowhere, they pretty much do nothing but scream about worms, and react in disgust as Billy swallows them down. The only stand out is young Hallie Kate Eisenberg, as Billy's equally put-upon friend. You may remember Eisenberg as that little girl who used to lip synch to songs on the Pepsi commercials in the mid 90s, or from her small role in the film Bicentennial Man. She is likeable in her performance, and is one of the few characters who has a shred of intelligence and doesn't act like she hails from outer space. Too bad the main thing Dolman's screenplay can think of having her do is watch the worm eating action from afar, and say "boys are so weird" over and over while she shakes her head.
Since the movie doesn't even try to follow the original book (the only thing similar is the title, there's a bet about eating worms, and some of the character names), How to Eat Fried Worms pretty much has lost all purpose in the translation. The film's production company, Walden Media, is a studio that prides itself on bringing children's literary classics to the big screen. They've had a pretty hit and miss record so far with films like Holes, Chronicles of Narnia, Because of Winn-Dixie, and Hoot. This is their worst effort yet. Maybe they should have thought twice about bringing a book where the main plot point is a kid eating worms to the big screen. So, even though the movie winds up living up to its title, perhaps the question here is did anyone want it to?
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