I knew the answer before I asked the question: It was a cute movie. Of course that’s what my mom was going to say when I asked her what she thought of Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, which we took my 7-year-old nephew to see Friday afternoon. In my experience, “cute” is mom shorthand for “charming” and “didn’t make me want to punch myself” and “never had to worry about any bad language or violence or anything my kid or grandkid wasn’t old enough for yet.” I’ve always had a slight knee-jerk reaction against summing any movie up as “cute.” It seems far too close to patting a small, dull child on the head and assuring them (in a voice usually reserved for the family pet), “Aren’t you cute!” Well, Alexander… has at least temporarily helped me get over that bit of film snobbery because my mom was absolutely right: this is one remarkably cute movie.
This is the part where I should set up the plot of the film and acknowledge that it is actually adapted from a 1972 short picture book of the same name by Judith Viorst. However, I’ll just be honest and admit that I had never heard of Judith Viorst or her series of Alexander books (of which, Alexander and the Terrible… is the most well-known entry) prior to seeing this film. From what I can tell, Viorst’s Alexander and the Terrible… is one-act wonder which, true to its title, details one particularly awful day in a young boy’s life. It was turned into a 25-minute animated musical special for HBO in 1990 and adapted into a musical for the theater in 1998. It officially entered into film development in 2011, at which point it was to be distributed by 20th Century Fox and directed by Lisa Cholodenko (The Kids are All Right). Steve Carell landed the role of the dad, but shortly thereafter it was put into turnaround by Fox, ultimately saved from the scrap heap by Disney. Cholodenko left the project, only to be replaced by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl, Youth in Revolt, Cedar Rapids), and bada-bing, bada-boom, the movie’s out in theaters now.
In the transition from page to screen, the bad day has been extended to ensnare Alexander’s entire family. The basic plot sees Alexander suffering the worst day of his life on the eve of his 12th birthday (embarrasses himself in front of his big crush, no one is coming to his birthday party, etc.), and then after a stroke of midnight birthday wish he watches from afar as each member of his family suffers through their own worst day.
We are told by Alexander in the opening voice-over, “My parents say there’s no such thing as a bad day, that it’s all just how you look at it.” We are then teased as to just how bad the day really went as we watch his clearly dejected family driving home in a busted-up, doorless station wagon. Dad (Carell, providing the warm heart the film so desperately needs) is wearing a half-burned pirate shirt; Alexander’s sister (Kerris Dorsey) is deathly ill; baby Trevor is covered in green paint of some kind; and brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) and Mom (a very game Jennifer Garner) both look like soldiers who’ve just “seen some things, man.” When the dad assures the mom they’re in the home stretch, nearly back to their house, she can barely muster a fake smile. Once they pull into their driveway and open the front door of the house they are greeted with a mysterious, monstrous roar, at which point the film flashes back to the previously morning. So, we start out roughly at the end meaning the bulk of the film is the fun of seeing how exactly things got so terrible, horrible, no good, very bad for them. Plus, unless you’ve seen it spoiled in the trailers you kind of want to know what the heck made that scary noise from the other side of their front door.
That is a well-constructed set-up for an in-offensive slice of family entertainment, but what makes it so darn cute and oddly admirable are the pitfalls it avoids with its characters. The dad has been unemployed for 7 months, devoting his time to taking care of baby Trevor during the day, sending out applications while Trevor naps in the afternoon, and picking up the other kids from school. However, he is not a bumbling, Homer Simpson-type ala so many sitcom husbands, but is instead a perfectly competent stay-at-home dad. Also, his unemployment status is not glossed over nor is it over-emphasized, used as a testament to the day’s perseverance and never-give-up attitude. His modern anxieties over being a man who is at least temporarily unable to financially provide for his family shines through in a brief scene late in the film, but it is done in such a way that adult audiences can understand while not losing the younger audiences in the process. The mom is the bread-winner of the family, an executive at a publishing house. She’s in line for a promotion, which will mean more hours away from her family. The film acknowledges how much that concerns her without ever stooping to simplistic “she’s putting her career in front of her family” shaming, with Carell’s character completely supportive of her potential career advancement.
The rest of Alexander’s family is similarly saved from going the more conventional route. The teenage sister could so easily have been a boy crazy, “My parents will never understand me” monster, but instead she’s endearingly devoted to preparing for her role as Peter Pan in the big school musical, a clear career ambition which is not mocked or criticized. The older brother isn’t rude to his parents or overly dismissive of his siblings, but instead singularly focused on passing his driver’s test and taking his high-maintenance girlfriend (Bella Thorne) to the prom.
It is crucial to the film’s success that we actually like the family. Otherwise, the second and third acts in which everything goes so wrong would feel akin to a slasher film in which there’s no one to root for other than the masked killer, whose brutal dispatching of each subsequent victim is greeted with cheers instead of, “Oh, not her. They shouldn’t have killed her; I liked her.” Luckily, in Alexander we’re not left cheering when the dad bombs his job interview or the sister delivers the worst version of Robin Hood you’ve ever seen. We’re laughing because it’s funny, presented with a savvy mixture of slapstick, humiliation comedy, and light potty humor, but after nearly every single horrible thing if you wait long enough there’s somebody in this family re-assuring someone else that everything is going to be okay. Heck, you almost feel a tad bit envious, muttering to yourself, “I wish my dad had been there for me like that after I did that one stupid thing that one day.” Ala Little Miss Sunshine, this terrible ordeal actually brings the family closer together, and you find yourself rooting for this assortment of oddly optimistic misfits, even if you do agree with the mean girlfriend and find their habit of singing together in the car annoying.
Director Miguel Orteta keeps the action zipping along, making Alexander a somewhat surprisingly short film at 75 minutes, but it doesn’t waste a single moment of screen time. It gets in and gets out long before any children you bring with you will have lost interest. At times, it does seem to maybe add more hours into its titular day than are technically possible. I personally started trying to figure out the timeline in my head around the driving test/Robin Hood musical/pick up date for prom portion, but quickly abandoned such madness because why nitpick such a well-meaning film that mostly hangs together. I did also briefly question exactly how much of an age gap there is between Jennifer Garner and Steve Carell in real life (it turns out it’s 10 years), but more for my own curiosity than out of any reaction to their workable chemistry as a married couple.
As an adult, I am trying to say that Alexander… is a winning family comedy, one which can delight audiences of all ages. It’s exactly the type of “kid-centric” live-action film there used to be more of, as not everything you take a kid to see has to be animated or a superhero/fantasy spectacular. However, this is more of a case of an uncle who was pleasantly surprised that he really liked a movie his 7-year-old nephew wanted to see. The truly important critical response comes from that 7-year-old, and his instant answer when asked what he thought of the movie was, “I loved it, I want to buy it on DVD, and watch it over and over and over again.” Side note: He said that while joyously dancing in front of his seat while Kerris and Justine Dorsey’s peppy song “Best Worst Day Ever” played over the film’s closing credits. That part about wanting to watch it over and over again would normally cause any caregiver to shudder, perhaps instantly thinking back to how they can now recite every line from Frozen because they’re kid watched it so often. In the case of Alexander…, though, there are far, far worse films you could end up having to watch over and over and over again.
What did you think? Have you seen Alexander and hope to never see it again? Did you find the family annoying instead of endearing? Or are you oddly mad at me for never having heard of Bella Thorne until now? Let me have it in the comments.