REVIEW BY NATHAN LERNER/For 21st Century Media
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is a family- friendly comedy. Without ever becoming unduly didactic, the film offers some important object lessons for children about persevering in the face of adversity.
In an introductory voiceover, our titular protagonist, Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) advises the audience of one of his parents’ pet sayings. According to an adage that they are fond of quoting, there is no such thing as a bad day. What ensues in the course of the film challenges that belief.
The Cooper clan offers a redefined formulation of an early 21st century middle class American family and revised gender roles. Pater familias, Ben (Steve Carrell), is a whip smart aerospace engineer. However, his company has been downsized and he is unemployed. His wife, Kelly (Jennifer Garner), has picked up the slack by working as a publicist for a book publishing firm.
That leaves Ben with stay at home duties, raising newborn baby, Trevor (twins Elise and Zooey Vargas splitting screen time). Feeling angry or emasculated? Not this guy! Despite being unemployed, he remains resolutely upbeat and determined to discharge his parental duties.
Besides baby Trevor, Alexander has two older siblings. His brother, Anthony (Dylan Minnette), and sister, Emily (Kerris Dorsey), both attend high school.
It’s Alexander’s twelfth birthday. However, from the outset, things go badly for the birthday boy. He wakes up to find a piece of chewing gum lodged in his hair. How did it get there? As Alexander rolls out of bed he knocks over a glass of water, which empties onto a nearby laptop.
Exasperated by circumstances, Alexander makes a wish. He hopes that things go wrong in the lives of his family members so that they can see what it’s like. Each of the family members is subsequently confronted by challenging circumstances.
Alexander is scheduled to have his birthday party that night. He learns that, at the last moment, his classmate, Philip Parker (Lincoln Melcher) has scheduled his birthday party opposite Alexander’s. His rival is going to have a fog machine and other inducements. Even Alexander’s best friend, Paul (Mekai Curtis) is planning to attend Phillip’s party instead of Alexander’s. Even worse, Becky Gibson (Sidney Fullmer), a cute young girl that Alexander has a secret crush on, is headed to Philip’s soiree rather than attend poor Alexander’s birthday bash.
Ben’s efforts to find a replacement job in a difficult market are fraught with problems. He gets an interview at a company, which develops video games. There, he will meet with the firm’s operators, three kids, young enough to be his offspring. Since Ben can’t find childcare on a short notice, he brings Trevor with him to the interview.
Kelly is being considered by her perpetually overwrought boss, Nina (Megan Mullally). for a promotion to a vice-presidential position at the firm. It all depends on how well Kelly manages the launch of a new book. A printing blunder results in a recurrent typo. Doing a cameo, Dick van Dyke (still going strong at 88) is humiliated when he does a celebrity reading of the misprinted book. Will Kelly’s career go down the toilet?
Alexander’s brother, Anthony, dotes on Celia (Bella Thorne), a shallow, image obsessed bitch. They are scheduled to go to the junior prom together. Rumor has it that they are going to be crowned Duke and Duchess of the event. However, first Anthony has to pass his driving test so that he can chauffeur Celia to the big event. Anthony is confident about the outcome of the exam. However, he hadn’t planned on being assigned to Ms. Suggs (Jennifer Coolidge), a splenetic examiner, who is intent on flunking him.
Alexander’s sister, Emily, is due to play the lead role in the high school production of “Peter Pan.” However, she seems to be succumbing to a cold. Will Emily recover in time for the play’s debut later that night?
The acting here is enjoyable. Carrell and Garner have a nice chemistry together and both display excellent comedic timing. The lead, Ed Oxenbould, and his on screen siblings, Dylan Minnette and Kerris Dorsey, all are pleasant if undistinguished.
The movie is inspired by Judith Viorst’s beloved children’s booklet of the same name. The adumbrated book was previously used as the basis for a TV cartoon special. The screenplay by Ron Lieber significantly expands the storyline and shifts the focus from young Alexander to his parents and their effort to keep the family functioning.
Miguel Arteta is an odd choice to helm a Disney family film. He’s directed comedies before, but they were nothing like this one. “The Good Girl’” featured Jennifer Aniston in her first big screen role after the demise of “Friends.” The film featured her character having a fling with a high school boy. Arteta also directed “Cedar Rapids,” a highly adult flick, replete with plenty of sex, drugs, and profanity. Despite his lack of experience with this sort of film, Arteta goes a highly competent job with “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day”.
The humor here never becomes ribald or sophomoric. It does have a good natured edge to it. The film does have one questionable comedic plot twist. To abate her inopportune cold, Emily ignores the dosage directions and downs a full bottle of cough syrup. She becomes totally zonked out. Depicting an adolescent overdosing on prescription drugs to produce a few laughs is ill-advised.
Despite the film’s title, “Alexander” is far from being terrible, horrible, no good, or very bad. In fact, it’s pretty damn entertaining.
*** PG (for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language) 81 minutes
Nathan Lerner sees over 200 feature films a year. He welcomes feedback at lernerprose.com.