Live-action family films have fallen on hard times of late. Perhaps it’s achieving that tricky balance between zaniness and feel-good that baffles filmmakers. Or perhaps they just need the right actor to blend these two elements together… like Steve Carell! Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day simply doesn’t work without his special brand of manic optimism. He effortlessly veers between the ridiculous and the poignant, elevating Alexander into a relentless gallop that every member of the family can enjoy.
Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) is one of those awkward kids who can’t get out of his own way. If there is an obstacle to avoid, you can bet he will trip over it. In the old days, they used to say kids like this were “tough on shoes.” His family is, of course, largely oblivious to his daily traumas. His dad, Ben (Carell), is an unemployed aerospace worker who spends his days babysitting and his nights defusing family turmoil. Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is a working mother saddled with putting food on the table and trying to stay connected with her self-absorbed children. The oldest boy, Anthony (Dylan Minnette), has the world by the tail, with a coveted driver’s license tantalizingly within reach, while the sister, Emily (Kerris Dorsey), is poised to dazzle with her starring role in the high school production of Peter Pan. They regard Alexander with a mix of incredulity and dismissiveness as they whiz by him on the fast track to happiness.
But nobody is rougher on Alexander than himself. He thinks he’s jinxed; doomed to a life of bad luck and embarrassing mustard stains. Miffed at his family for having the audacity to excel in their lives, Alexander makes an ill-conceived birthday wish: may they all experience his jinxed life for one full day. Like the mysterious magic from Liar Liar, Alexander’s words set in motion a day of bad luck, misunderstandings, and wardrobe malfunctions for the entire family. Each character will have their worst nightmares exposed in a barrage of sight gags that range from relatively lame to pretty darn hilarious. If they are going to survive, they’ll have to do it together.
It’s hard to imagine crocodiles and male strippers occupying the same universe, but somehow director Miguel Arteta manages to pull it off. Working from source material by Judith Viorst, Arteta expands the wafer-thin children’s book into a full-fledged circus. Though it feels a touch padded, like a comedy sketch extended beyond its intended limits, it never feels less than sincere. At the same time, it never feels maudlin, even during moments of self-realization when the music swells and people start crying. The pacing is brisk but never too madcap, and the characters always stay at the heart of the gags. Alexander is definitely laughing with its characters, not at them.
Likewise, writer Rob Lieber has a deft touch when it comes to adding more somber elements to such a lighthearted affair. Bullying is serious business, and a hot-button issue these days, but Lieber understands that dealing with a pecking order is part of the maturation process. Alexander is at that age where he will either start to assert himself or begin his slow fade into the background. It’s a wonderful thing to watch him become the calming influence when chaos ensues. He may not be suave or athletic or popular, but Alexander knows where all the life preservers are stashed.
The young actors are good here, though none of them are asked to do any heavy lifting. Garner struggles a bit with her comic timing, taking on the air of a dramatic actress who is a bit over-matched. Then again, who wouldn’t look over-matched against a comedic dynamo like Carell? His positivity and charm are irresistible, mostly because you’re anticipating the inevitable nervous breakdown. Carell’s ingenious comic persona is that of a man determined to be happy, no matter how miserable it makes him.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day aspires to nothing greater than being a fun movie about a family’s wacky adventure. It succeeds not only because of a great performance from Steve Carell, but its solemn belief in the power of family to endure all hardships. It’s a simple message that, perhaps, we don’t hear often enough. At a time when detached irony reigns supreme, it’s nice to know that it’s still okay to love your family, regardless of how embarrassing they are.
— J.R. Kinnard