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 raw. In this movie, the barf scenes standard in the usual crude youth comedies aren't gratuitous. They're logical climaxes.
Amazingly, writer-director Bob Dolman's "How to Eat Fried Worms" is based on a 1973 book regarded as 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 plot standby: the new kid in school trying to stand up to the local bully clique. 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 fifth-grade tyrant Joe Guire (Adam Hicks) on his first day, when Joe and his minions plant worms in Billy's lunch box.
Things escalate, as they usually do in elementary school and movies. Before long Billy has pitched a worm at Joe, who dubs him "Wormboy" and the two make 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 nerd 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 not displayed among fifth-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. 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 days of "Winnie the Pooh." But one reason Rockwell's book has kept an audience all these years -- besides its being 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 tries too hard to make a mini-Farrelly brothers gross-out movie while at the same time telling a heartwarming 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 a strange realm of bad taste and good intentions that's hard to follow, and even harder to swallow -- which you could say about almost everything in "How to Eat Fried Worms."
"How to Eat Fried Worms"
MPAA rating: PG for mild bullying and some crude humor
A New Line Cinema release. Writer-director Bob Dolman, based on the book by Thomas Rockwell. Producers Mark Johnson, Philip Steuer. Director of photography Richard Rutkowski. Editors Janice Hampton, Frederick Wardell. Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.
In general release.