Comedies of frustration are hard to pull off—Laurel and Hardy could do so effortlessly, and occasionally a modern filmmaker manages the trick, as John Hughes did with “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” Miguel Arteta is clearly not in the same league. Despite committed performances from Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, as well as winning juvenile turns from Ed Oxenbould, Dylan Minnette and Kerris Dorsey, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” may not deserve all those descriptive adjectives in the title, but “No Good” comes pretty close.
Based on a popular 1972 children’s book by Judith Viorst, the movie opens with eleven-year old Alexander (Oxenbould) experiencing an awful day that includes learning that a classmate is planning an extravagant birthday bash for tomorrow, the same day his is scheduled. Depressed, he expresses a birthday wish—that his ever-cheery family, who never appreciate the depths of his childish misery, should endure a bad day, too.
The result is a succession of catastrophes for them all. His dad Ben (Carell), an out-of-work engineer, must go for a sudden interview with the dudes running a software company taking his infant son along with him, and eventually he’ll wind up not only with a toddler with a green face, but wearing a garish shirt that catches on fire. Meanwhile mom Kelly (Garner), a browbeaten mid-management lackey at a publishing firm run by imperious Nina (Megan Mullally), suffers through a children’s book reading by Dick Van Dyke that turns into a disaster because of a misprint in the text. Sister Emily (Dorsey) finds she’s come down with a bad cold on the very day she’s scheduled to play Peter Pan in the school musical, and the medicine she guzzles will leave her inebriated, much to the distress of her teacher (Burn Gorman). And Anthony, Alexander’s older brother, not only wakes up with a humongous zit on his forehead but finds his prom date with Celia (Bella Thorne), the ultra-self-centered girlfriend he’s smitten with, threatened by a series of missteps. As if that weren’t bad enough, Anthony’s scheduled to take his driving test that day, too—something that abrasive test administrator (Jennifer Coolidge) will do her very best to undermine.
The result is a cascade of comic slapstick that, quite frankly, never achieves the level of hilarity it’s aiming for. Part of the problem lies with the screenplay Rob Lieber has concocted from the book. It’s episodic, of course, but not smartly so, and his additions are weird: he’s contrived, for instance, an odd obsession about Australia for Alexander that becomes a sort of recurrent leitmotif (the lad’s even denied the opportunity to write a class report about the continent, having to watch another boy get the assignment) before providing the basis for an over-the-top finale with an Outback theme that includes all sorts of animals, including wayward kangaroos and crocodiles. (One might wonder how a financially strapped couple can afford such a birthday bash anyway.)
But Miguel Arteta’s direction doesn’t help. He keeps things moving—the picture clocks in at considerably under ninety minutes, which is a blessing. But mere speed isn’t the same thing as carefully controlled energy. The individual scenes of mayhem aren’t very well choreographed or edited (by Pamela Martin), coming across as more chaotic than clever (the Peter Pan sequence is frankly a mess, and a scene near the end when Carell has a run-in with a kangaroo is no better). And they don’t build: instead of steadily increasing ferocity, the y just meander into each other, and the rhythm of the whole feels off.
Still, the cast give their all. Carell and Garner endure each and every humiliation, however cruel, affably, with comic resignation. The same can be said of Minnette and Dorsey. Coolidge brings a burst of vitality to the driving-test scene, and Van Dyke puts on a game face in what’s actually a poorly-written bit. But some of the supporting players, like Thorne, are shrill. Fortunately, Oxenbould proves an amiable focus for all the action: he makes Alexander come off as a nice kid who regrets all the trouble he’s caused, even if he can’t make the crush the lad has on a pretty schoolmate (Sidney Fullmer) any less obvious. And nobody could make the “life lessons” that Lieber has characters voice, all too heavy-handedly, during the day—and especially at its close—sound any less crushingly corny than they are. The technical side of things is on the level one expects of Disney live-action product, with both Terry Stacey’s cinematography and Michael Corenblith’s production design agreeably spiffy.
But though one can name lots of worse family movies, if not horrible, terrible and very bad this one is—considering its pedigree and the quality of the cast—disappointingly mediocre.