Judith Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a classic picture book funny and smart in capturing the feel of a bad day from the point of view of a little boy. It cleverly portrays how a series of quotidian bummers – not getting the seat you like, or a prize in your cereal, or the dinner you’d hoped for – can snowball, making you grumpier by the minute until by bedtime you’re entirely wrung out. But the book’s only 32 pages, so in making a feature length live action adaptation screenwriter Rob Lieber has expanded a slim and simple idea into a widescreen sitcom plot, giving Alexander’s whole family a horrible, no good, etcetera, day, the better to make it through with a smile because of their love for each other.
It’s a nice message. The movie is a bright, sunny, largely inoffensive kids comedy that’s short – 81 minutes, including credits – sweet, and never particularly funny but at least agreeable in the way better live action Disney comedies can be. It’s broad, cute, and nice enough, idealized squeaky clean family foibles and slightly sharper frustrations around the edges. I suspect kids will enjoy the main character, who has been turned into a Wimpy Kid knockoff. Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, with awkward hair and a face stuck at the exact midpoint between child and teen) is a 12-year-old kid who is perpetually frazzled, scuffed, mussed, scattered. He’s well-intentioned but clumsy and easily frustrated with his lot in life. Things just don’t go his way. It’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days for him. And he’s sympathetic because of it.
The target audience is unlikely to read any reviews, let alone this one. And they certainly won’t care that it’s directed by Miguel Arteta who, with work on relationship semi-comedies like Cedar Rapids, Youth in Revolt, Chuck & Buck, and HBO’s gone-too-soon Enlightened, knows a thing or two about quickly and charmingly sketching relationships and histories between characters. He does his unassuming, pleasant thing here, quickly filling out the ranks of the family so that we feel we’re joining a fairly normal, busy, loving, upper-middle-class life in progress. There’s the stay-at-home dad (Steve Carell), children’s book editor mom (Jennifer Garner), cocky older brother (Dylan Minnette), drama queen sister (Kerris Dorsey), and infant brother (Elise and Zoey Vargas). We get the dynamics immediately. The way the family operates is clear, and, though they mean well, it’s easy to see how Alexander’s struggles can get lost in the shuffle.
He always seems to be having a bad day. Popular kids pick on him. He feels stupid next to his crush. His family members have successes to share around the dinner table while he just mopes and complains. He wishes they knew what it was like to have everything go wrong. Well, they soon do. Car troubles, job crises, medical emergencies, school issues, romantic confusion, scheduling difficulties, wild animals, and a variety of scatological concerns plague the family as the movie clunks through their day from one snag to the next. It’s never zany or farcical, just one fairly ordinary stumbling block after the next played up a notch and a half past normal. The escalating series of events is almost what you'd expect out of a bad day, but a bit more juvenile and movie-ish. The family gets to share the bad day feeling, and only grow closer together because of it.
I kept waiting for the movie to kick into a higher gear, generate a sustained funny sequence or string a few clever lines together. Nope. It’s at a modest even keel beginning to end. The cast is likable and makes a cute family unit. Every once in a while they’re joined by a funny actor (Megan Mullally, Jennifer Coolidge, Dick Van Dyke) who can deliver a half dozen so-so lines in a way that makes them mildly humorous. That’s nice, too. I mean, the whole thing’s sweet enough with only a few spiky moments of borderline off-color humor pinned in by the PG rating. (At one point Carell sighs, "Daddy wishes he could swear right now.") There’s genuine love and camaraderie in this family, and it’s the rare kids movie that acknowledges grown-up feelings and concerns, even if the movie’s too slight and minor to do anything with Carell and Garner's warm, comfortable performances. So it’s not a great comedy, but it has plenty of smiles and good vibes and will fit in perfectly between Dog with a Blog reruns some future weekend on the Disney Channel.