It takes a lot of guts to eat fried worms. Whether you're referring to the metaphor for dealing with difficulties in life, or the literal act of chewing down slimy, wriggling fish bait, you need courage and a strong stomach to get through. Based loosely on the novel by Thomas Rockwell, How To Eat Fried Worms starts out with the kind of gross-out silliness that comes second nature to ten year-old boys, but finishes with the kind of simple and meaningful life lessons that good kids' stories should rally around.
As the new guy in school, Billy (Luke Benward) faces the usual taunts and cruelties that elementary school kids are infamous for. Within the first five days of class he has earned the nickname 'worm boy' and has shaken hands on a ridiculous bet with the school bully, Joe (Adam Hicks). Billy must eat ten worms before 7 PM on Saturday without puking (I could call it throwing up, but why diminish the childhood magic of the story). The only problem, apart from the whole 'eating worms' thing, is that Billy has a very weak stomach. He's almost guaranteed to lose at the sight of the first worm. Whoever loses the bet has to put worms down their pants and walk through the hall at school in front of everyone. It's just what you want on your second week in a new school.
The premise would seem to fit better with fraternity rush parties or an episode of "Fear Factor", but the friendships that develop during Billy's encounter with the worms are truly at the heart of the story. The boys in Joe's gang are all revoltingly delighted at the prospect of finding the most unappealing ways to prepare the grubby dishes. While that's good enough at first, Billy slowly wins them over with his courage and devotion in the face of Joe's condescending attitude. Even the bully finds himself in need of rescuing and thanks to Billy discovers that winning friends is easier with loyalty than with fear.
That may sound all warm and fuzzy, but don't be fooled. The bulk of the time in this movie is dedicated to the many imaginative ways the boys serve up the worms. From being fried in pork fat, to being exploded in a microwave, each wormy recipe will have little kids giggling with glee and parents wishing they hadn't bought the hotdog or nachos. The rest of the humor is infantile as well with the silliness reaching its pinnacle when Billy's little brother Woody (played by the adorable Ty Panitz) begins chanting his favorite nickname for his private parts: dillydink (a term that several kids in the theater felt compelled to echo for the next few minutes of the movie).
Grown-ups with no interest in being grossed out don't have much to look forward to. There are brief interludes where the story parallels with Billy's father (Tom Cavanagh) who is also having a rough time starting his new job. Billy's mother (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) also gets some nice mommy scenes and a few funny moments on the tennis court pummeling her husband with balls and racquet. They're not much relief, though, and the movie remains firmly in the realm of snot and worm jokes.
Die hard fans of the kids book may be irked by the drastic departures from its plot, but they can be happy that the heart and spirit of the storyline is intact. If you're one of those upset by it, there are a whole lot of snooty "Pride and Prejudice" fans out there ready to commiserate with you over movies that don't take stories word for word from the book. Sometimes things need to be shaken up a little for a translation to film. Can't handle that? You can go eat fried worms.