Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) is a middle school student who has known his share of bad days. In fact, the day before his twelfth birthday he face plants in the yard in front of his crush, later ignites her lab notes and nearly incinerates the science department in class, and most horrendous, learns that his birthday party the next night is running against that of school rival Philip Parker and everyone is going. Surely, things can’t get any worse, right?
Of course, in this foible-filled family comedy based on Judith Viorst’s popular 1972 story and directed by Miguel Arteta (Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), things do just that as the frustrated Alexander returns home to find his family having anything but a bad day. His brother Anthony (Dylan Minette) is dating the hottest girl in school and gearing up to get his driver’s license so he can drive her to prom and his sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) is the celebrated lead in tomorrow’s production of “Peter Pan.” Life is even great for his parents, his Mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner) on the cusp of taking on a VP job at the publishing house she works at while father Ben (Steve Carrell), who’s been unemployed for the better part of a year now has a dream job interview the next day with a video game firm. And, to place the icing on the cake, Alexander’s baby brother Trevor is a cute bundle of joy who steals much of the family’s attention, oftentimes feeling like it’s away from him.
But that’s all about to change when Alexander makes his midnight birthday wish, longing for his friends and family to just have a taste of the type of days he’s become accustomed to, just so they’d understand his frustration.
And it happens.
Things begin to unravel the next day, with everything that could go wrong for the family going wrong, from alarms not going off to cars not starting and everything in between. Orange juice spills, Trevor pees all over the place, and Emily is battling some serious sinus issues. And it just goes downhill from there, with a crazy driver’s test for Anthony, a bizarre job interview for Ben that sees Trevor downing the better part of a green Sharpie, and Kelly facing down the wrath of angry parents and an aged Dick Van Dyke after a failed book reading. Oh, and did we mention, Phillip Parker’s got the chicken pox too!
The craziness just continues and features some solid, if not Academy Award winning performances, from the leads. Carrell is warm and funny as always and Jennifer Garner plays well alongside him, the two owning the role of loving, if overwhelmed parents with good chemistry. The kids own their roles as well, Oxenbould doing well with his role of the put-upon Alexander while Minette and Dorsey have fun filling up the scenes with their respective moments of chaos.
One area the film does fall flat is in its use of some of its supporting cast. With players like Megan Mullally, Jennifer Coolidge, and even Rizwan Manji and Burn Gorman on board, it’s a shame to find these great character actors relegated to filling up the scenery, rather than chewing it up like they’re each capable of. Coolidge, as Anthony’s hardcore driving instructor, is given the closest thing to a chance to shine but it’s an all too short moment for the great comedic talent. Add to that some obligatory Disney family film clichés and this film falls short of any best of lists.
But even with those shortcomings, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is still a fun, family-friendly film that carries forth a strong message of looking for the bright side in life, or, as father Ben would share, “steering our ships toward positivity,” no matter the craziness going on around us, particularly within the bounds of a family. And with that message intact, the movie delivers more than it’s fair share of laughable moments, plenty enough to have your kids asking to see it again and again. Trust us, you could do a lot worse.
Editor’s Note: For those parents wishing to discuss the film further, the fine folks over at Different Drummer have put together a fun and engaging Family Study Guide for families to use in exploring the message of the movie further.