“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day” is not a good movie, but it’s a damn likable one. The dialogue is snappy, and the performances by the family members are spot-on (this movie does not work without Steve Carell), but the plotting is, well, bad. All characters outside of the family are gross stereotypes, seemingly because it’s easier to make an example of them that way. The pro-family vibe of the movie is so strong, though, that it makes the predictable storytelling easier to forgive.
Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) is about to turn 12, and per middle school protocol, he’s having an awful day. He wakes up with gum in his hair (sadly, one of only a few nods to the 1972 book on which the movie is based), and proceeds to get humiliated at a school-wide level via text bomb, and is crushed to discover that even his best friend is going to skip his birthday party the next day in order to attend the party of a much cooler kid. Alexander, convinced that he is all but invisible to his family and frustrated that they can’t relate to what he’s going through, wishes on a candle-lit cupcake at midnight on his birthday that they could know how it feels to be him for a day. From the moment they wake up the next morning, Alexander’s entire family experiences a “Liar Liar” form of karmic payback.
Each member of the Cooper family has a designated foil assigned by the screenplay (with the exception of newborn baby Trevor, for obvious reasons). For oldest sibling Anthony (Dylan Minnette), it is his awful girlfriend Celia (Bella Thorne). For aspiring actress Emily (Karris Dorsey), it is her awful theater instructor who expects perfection from tweens. In the case of the parents (Jennifer Garner and Carell), it is her awful boss and his prospective employers, whose awfulness is yet to be determined. (For Alexander, it’s everyone.) All of these awful people exist in the real world, sadly, but when making a movie that features awful people, it helps to make them, well, slightly less awful, or at the very least somewhat human. Celia, unfortunately, doesn’t exhibit a single redeeming quality in the movie. You have to think that Anthony’s parents despise her, and wonder where they went wrong in raising their son.
And then there are these out-of-nowhere moments of pure joy, of a family letting its collective guard down and showing what it means to be a family, that send the movie soaring. Carell’s Ben Cooper is the best dad ever. He never loses his cool, he will defend his kids to the death (the way he dispatches the drama instructor is pithy and spot-on), and finds the silver lining even as the cloud is repeatedly striking him with lightning. He’s so fun to watch that it’s actually okay that he’s stealing the focus from Alexander. Everyone else gets a moment, or a line, but they’re at their best during the group scenes, particularly the bit where the family takes Anthony and Celia to the prom. It is the essence of family, and it’s thrilling to watch.
Judith Viorst’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good Very Bad Day” would have made a 5-minute movie. In its fleshed out form, it’s an 81-minute movie, a tacit admission that they knew that there just isn’t much to build on here. If it had an equal amount of smarts to match its heart, this could have been something special. As it is, it’s a pleasant distraction, nothing more.(2.5 / 5)
This originally ran October 9, 2014 on Bullz-Eye.com.