“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is a pretty distinctive title, but for anyone who grew up reading Judith Viorst’s children’s book of the same title, it also packs a lot of nostalgia.
As far as the movie is concerned, the title is also a bit deceptive. Where the book focused on the misadventures of the protagonist, the film turns the tables on his family.
Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) is your typical 12-year-old; his life is a vast bowl of unfathomable chaos. On day No. 1, we see him stumble his way through his morning routine and arrive at school, which is a merciless cauldron of confusion.
One minute, Alexander is pairing up with his crush for a lab experiment. The next, he’s setting fire to her notes, as well as the classroom wall. His geography teacher won’t let him do a report on his beloved Australia, and even worse, the most popular kid in school has scheduled his birthday party opposite Alexander’s. Sadly, even Alexander’s best friend is planning to defect at the siren call of preteen peer pressure.
Naturally, Alexander’s family is a portrait of perfection. His mother (Jennifer Garner) is on the verge of being named vice president of a publishing company. His father (Steve Carell) is gearing up for an interview with a video game design company. His older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) has a knockout girlfriend, has been named prom king and is “hashtag blessed.” His sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) is set to debut as the lead in her eighth-grade production of “Peter Pan,” and of course, everybody just loves Baby Trevor.
Fed up with his lot in life, Alexander makes a wish: He wants his family to understand what it’s like when things don’t go your way. And don’t you know it? He gets it.
The bulk of the film covers day No. 2, when everything falls apart for Alexander’s family, leading to chaotic sequences involving flaming pirate shirts, blue tuxedos, cough syrup-fueled stage debuts and auto collisions.
It’s a fun montage of craziness, set jokes and visual gags, all built around a positive message about making the best of life’s lemons and sticking together with the ones you love (and who love you). The problem is that the protagonist is only along for the ride.
“Alexander” is full of fun sequences and positive messages, but it leaves you feeling just a bit shallow since Alexander himself never has to overcome anything. His “Very Bad Day” takes place in the first act, and he takes a back seat from that point on while his family deals with theirs. It isn’t a mortal wound, but the story is passive enough to keep “Alexander” from reaching the status it might achieve otherwise.
Garner, Carell and company have fun with what they are given, but “Alexander” never stays quite long enough with any of its cast members to really let them shine. Jokes and set pieces flash on and off the screen just long enough for a quick gag (Anthony’s driving test, Garner trying to stop Dick Van Dyke from reading a misprint copy of her company’s new book at a public reading), but at a running time of 81 minutes, you leave with the feeling that there’s plenty more story to tell and not enough screen time to go around, especially for poor Alexander.
Understandably, it’s a challenge when you have someone as magnetic as Carell in the cast (even “Community’s” Donald Glover only gets a brief supporting role), but the frustrating thing about “Alexander” is not that it is a bad film. It’s that what we get suggests that director Miguel Arteta could have given us so much more.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is rated PG, but does contain some vulgar humor that might leave parents cringing, including multiple shots of a kid getting sick, and an extended sequence where Baby Trevor tries to set a record for distance urination.
More of Joshua Terry’s work is at woundedmosquito.com.