A film review by Craig J. Koban October 17, 2014 

ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY jjj
 

2014, PG, 81 mins.

 

Steve Carell as Ben  /  Jennifer Garner as Kelly  /  Ed Oxenbould as Alexander  /  Dylan Minnette as Anthony  /  Kerris Dorsey as Emily  /  Bella Thorne as Celia  /  Jennifer Coolidge as Ms. Suggs  /  Megan Mullally as Nina

Directed by Miguel Arteta  /  Written by Rob Lieber  /  Based on the book by Judith Viorst

Everyone has bad days.  

Alas, for poor Alexander Cooper…he and his family suffer from a relative tsunami of embarrassing social indiscretions in – to quote its full title (deep breath!) – ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY.  The film – based on Judith Viorst’s 1972 book of the same name, which was also previously adapted into an HBO animated musical – follows the exploits of a typical 11-year-old boy that has no end of crummy luck befall him, while most of the members of his family appear mostly unscathed by the trials and tribulations of horrendous chance.  So, much like a similar child did in LIAR, LIAR, Alexander makes a birthday wish that his parents and siblings, for 24 hours, experience the same sort of hellish ordeals that he does daily.  

Wouldn’t ya know it…his wish comes true. 

To be fair, there’s nothing terribly novel about ALEXANDER (abbreviated going forward for the purposes of this review), and at a very scant 75 minutes (plus end credits) it seems that the film seems to be desperately mining the source material to stretch it out to feature film length.  Yet, there’s no denying the ample talent in front of the camera (such as the likes of Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner – very well paired – playing Alexander’s parents) and behind it as well (director Miguel Arteta made the very underrated THE GOOD GIRL, CEDAR RAPIDS, and YOUTH IN REVOLT).  Rather thanklessly, Arteta and his writers manage to craft a frequently uproarious family comedy for all ages that doesn’t wallow in lowest common denominator humor and bad taste.  Considering the relative over-the-top vibe of the film’s out-there premise, lesser directors would have crafted this material for tawdry laughs, but there seems to be some skill and care taken in the approach to ALEXANDER, which ultimately makes it come off as a mostly lively and refreshingly reserved family offering.  

 

 

The everyman – or should I say everyboy – hero of the film is, yes, Alexander (newcomer Ed Oxenbould, a wonderfully natural and poised young actor), a boy that’s about to turn 12 and has great aspirations for a kick butt B-day party…but most of the school’s kids will be attending Phillip Parker’s (the resident popular alpha male) birthday bash (“He has a hot tub!”).  Realizing that he can’t compete with Phillip, the semi-melancholic, but still plucky Alexander decides to tackle the rest of the day’s hardships as best as he can.  Unfortunately, it doesn’t start well for him when he wakes up with gum in his hair.  Yuck.  Alexander tries to make himself feel better by trying to get chummy with his school crush, Becky (Sidney Fullmer), but she disappointingly doesn’t reciprocate any feelings back. 

Things begin to snowball even further for the hapless Alexander.  He’s an all-things Australia junkie, but feels mightily rejected by his teacher when he’s not assigned the country for a big school project.  The rest of Alexander’s family loves him, to be sure, but they all seem so wrapped up in the minutia of the own lives that he feels largely ignored by them.  His mother and father, Kelly and Ben (Garner and Carell) have been going through occupational stresses, seeing as Ben is a vastly overqualified PhD in Physics that can’t seem to land a job and has resorted to be a stay-at-home “fammy” (combination of father and mommy, as one of his morning yoga friends labels him).  Kelly has been going to great personal anxieties trying to land a big promotion at the book publisher that she works for.  As for Alexander’s siblings?  His older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is more focused on his girlfriend and the prom, whereas his older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) is obsessed with knocking ‘em dead in an upcoming Peter Pan school musical.  When Alexander has had enough of being ignored – and his family not experiencing his levels of personal humiliation – he makes that aforementioned birthday wish…and then…well… 

Going into any more detail about what happens next to Alexander’s clan would spoil the fun of the film, but let’s just say that the Coopers experience an excruciating day replete by mishaps that grow more sizable and cringe-worthy as it  progresses, much to Alexander’s initial surprise, which later gives way to genuine concern and guilt (he did, after all, wish this to happen).  Arteta has a good eye for building the escalating momentum of the laundry list of increasingly distressful mishaps that happen to this family over a 24-hour period, and much of the film’s well earned laughs reside in both the anticipation of what’s to come next and also in the reactions of those affected.  ALEXANDER could have degenerated into a deeply mean-spirited social satire, but it creates genuinely likeable characters that we feel legitimate sympathy for as they try to rebound from what happens to them.  It’s amazing when the parents in particular try to maintain a semblance of optimism considering some of the unrecoverable situations they find themselves in. 

The sincere and grounded performances in the film help sell its wacky storyline.  Carell and Garner in particular have such a nice, unforced rapport on screen together that it allows for the film's broad-based laughs to feel more rightfully earned (Garner herself seems particularly game for checking her ego and making herself look foolish in many outlandish scenes).  Ed Oxenbould plays the bright-eyed main character with surprising restraint – especially for a young actor and for the material he’s in – and has a good eye for mixing up scenes of sentimentality and hearty guffaws.  Arteta knows how to establish just the right performance tone from his actors, and when scenes build to comedic payoffs and punchlines they pay off handsomely.  Take, for instance, one awkward moment when Garner’s mom accidentally walks in on Anthony getting out of the shower.  Later in the car – with the whole family in tow – when that moment is recalled, she rightfully stands up for herself by proclaiming, “Enough!  I’ve seen every penis in this car!” 

Even potentially lewd moments like that (as scandalous as they seem for a family film) get self-acknowledging laughs from audience members, some of which, no doubt, have been through similar ordeals on the home front.  I think that’s why – again, deep breath! – ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY works as well as it does.  The film is not high comedic art (if anything, it’s easily disposable and forgettable after seeing it), nor does it truly reinvent the wheel for family genre pictures.  However, it’s a mostly crowd-pleasing and frequently amusing endeavor that milks ample laughs out of our identification with these unfortunate characters.  And isn’t it exceedingly rare for a family film to be discreetly entertaining for both young and old viewers alike?  

There's nothing terrible, no good, or very bad about that!

  H O M E