I'm of two minds on how I should judge Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. There's a part of me that feels I should simply accept it on its own terms as a family movie that just so happens to share a title with a beloved children's book. On its own, it's... fine, I guess. It's colorful, it's short, there are a few amusing moments and more than a few moments of PG-rated potty humor (there are jokes about poop, jokes about vomit and a gag involving multiple characters shouting the word “penis”). There's another part of me that thinks I should regard it through the lens of the source material, in which case it looks like nothing short of a cowardly desecration of a terrific little book.
You wouldn't think it would take much bravery to adapt Judith Viorst's book, which is clever, funny and beloved by parents and children across the world. The book centers on a spectacularly bad day in the life of Alexander, a stubborn, difficult child whose stubbornness only makes his bad day worse. It's easy to relate: we've all had those days that started badly, which in turn made us behave badly, which in turn made other things turn out badly, which in turn... well, you get the idea. The book's message is simple and sincere: hey, these things happen.
Disney's live-action movie adaptation of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day doesn't have the nerve to recreate the basic framework of the book or the personality of that book's central character. It doesn't even have the nerve to deliver an actual, honest-to-goodness bad day. Screenwriter Rob Lieber and director Miguel Arteta sand off every edge and wriggle out of every uncomfortable situation until they've delivered a safe, generic, happy, Disney Channel-ready feature that literally ends with a giant party.
The film's story begins with Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, Paper Planes) having a difficult day. He gets gum in his hair. He gets teased at school when somebody photoshops his head onto a picture of a bikini model. He learns that most of his friends won't be coming to his birthday party the next day. He tries to tell his family about how tough things are, but they dismiss him. Frustrated and a little bitter, Alexander wishes that his whole entire family would have a terrible day so they could better relate to him. The very next day, he gets his wish.
After the brief prologue, Alexander is turned into a relatively insignificant supporting character in order to make more room for the grown-up stars participating in the film. All of Alexander's family members have big events coming up on the same day: his father Ben (Steve Carell, Foxcatcher) has a big job interview with a video game design company, his mother Kelly (Jennifer Garner, Alias) is managing the launch of a new children's book, his sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey, Ray Donovan) is starring in a middle school production of Peter Pan and his brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette, Prisoners) has a big date coming up. Suffice it to say that all of their plans will go awry.
The storytelling contrivances required to disrupt everyone's plans tend to be unconvincing. For instance, the children's book Garner is launching – a banal little picture book about the joy of jumping – suffers from a typo that turns every use of the word “jump” into “dump” (as in “I like dumping in the swimming pool”). She manages to get the release canceled, but still has to stop a celebrity reading of the book being conducted by Dick Van Dyke (playing himself). She shouts and yells at Mr. Van Dyke in an attempt to get him to stop, but he pays her no mind because the story requires that he pay her no mind. Kids might enjoy the silly end result of an old man saying the word “dump” a bunch of times, regardless of the storytelling gymnastics required to get there.
The movie seems awfully nervous about ever letting things get even a little bit gloomy, constantly finding ways to assure the audience that everything is going to be okay in the end and that this family won't actually have to suffer the indignity of a truly miserable day where everything goes wrong. Does Ben's disastrous job interview actually land him a sweet position? Does Kelly's disastrous book launch actually earn her a promotion? Does Alexander become the most popular kid at his school and get an expensive-looking Australia-themed birthday party filled with kangaroos and male strippers? I'll give you zero guesses.
I suppose I don't really need to point this out, but most people do have bad days. They happen all the time, and they're no fun, but there's no way around them. You simply have to accept that they exist, and to remind yourself that there will be better days. That's pretty gentle as harsh realities go, but evidently it was too harsh for the people who made this movie. What family will watch this film and say, “Yeah, we've been there! Those stressful days DO always turn into something amazing, don't they?” I certainly don't demand gritty realism from a PG-rated children's film, but Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is polished family entertainment at its most artificial and condescending. Ms. Viorst and her intensely moody character deserve so much better.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Rating: ★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG
Running Time: 81 minutes
Release Year: 2014