How to Eat Fried Worms
Kiddie comedy goes for the box office gross
By Devin D. O’Leary
How to Eat Fried Worms
Directed by Bob Dolman
Cast: Luke Benward, Hallie Kate Eisenberg, Adam Hicks, Tom Cavanagh
I’m guessing kids have always liked gross things. I don’t recall too many fart jokes in Peter Pan or an abundance of snot references in the works of Charles Dickens. But that isn’t to say kids in the Victorian era and earlier didn’t appreciate a good gross-out. Boys, after all, are made of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.” (The original Mother Goose compilation, published in 1916, used the phrase “snaps and snails.” Common variations include “snips,” “slugs,” “snakes” and “frogs.” I don’t know what a “snip” is supposed to be, but most of the other stuff is pretty slimy.)
Growing up, I recall one particular Scholastic Book Club selection that served as the preteen Bible of gross-out literature. First published in 1973, Thomas Rockwell’s young adult classic How to Eat Fried Worms has become favored reading material for two or three generations of elementary school kids looking for yucky thrills. (And, according to the American Library Association, one of the 100 Most Frequently Challenged Books.)
Now, the book has been turned into a feature film, courtesy of New Line Pictures. In today’s post-“Fear Factor” world, it would seem that something as quaint as How to Eat Fried Worms would be a case of too little, too late. And that may very well be the case. Still, all involved have done their level best to make a compelling kiddy flick.
Writer/director Rob Dolman (Willow, Far and Away, The Banger Sisters) takes a few liberties with the original story, but sticks with the general idea. Young Billy (Luke Benward, Because of Winn-Dixie) is a puke-prone kid who has just been transferred to a new school. Unable to locate any friends among his already tight-knit classmates, Billy finds himself a target of scorn from the local bully, a freckle-faced hellion named Joe (Adam Hicks, The Shaggy Dog).
In a fit of mistaken bravado, Billy makes a wager with Joe, betting that he can consume 10 worms in a single day. The loser has to walk through the main hallway of school with night crawlers in his pants. (In the book it was 15 worms in 15 days, and the winner got 50 bucks.) The bulk of the film consists of Billy and a cabal of schoolkids running around their generic suburban neighborhood coming up with assorted elaborate ways of cooking worms (fried, microwaved, covered in marshmallow and ketchup). As the day wears on, and Billy conquers more and more of these culinary abominations (without throwing up), more and more of Joe’s posse defects to Billy’s side. But will he be able to consume all 10 worms before the 7 p.m. deadline?
How to Eat Fried Worms doesn’t hold a whole lot of appeal for parents. The silly plotline and grody imagery aren’t really aimed at anyone above the age of 12. As a result, the slapstick humor and mugging actors are perfectly acceptable in context. Tom Cavanagh (“Ed”) and Kimberly Williams (“According to Jim”) are stuck doing underused adult duty. (They aren’t identified as anything other than “mom” and “dad.”) As far as the kiddy cast is concerned, little Hallie Kate Eisenberg (Paulie, Bicentennial Man) has grown from cute to gangly and demonstrates some measurable acting skill as the film’s resident tomboy.
It’s hard to tell how kids today will react to the film. Despite its harmlessly nasty premise, the film feels decidedly old-fashioned. There aren’t any explosions or spaceships or Nickelodeon stars to lure the sugared-cereal set--leaving the film to live or die based on its literary pedigree. A little more grit and a little less silliness might have made this a semi-classic. (Makes me wonder what Bob Clark from A Christmas Story could have done with it.) As it stands, How to Eat Fried Worms is gross, if not entirely engrossing.
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