Friday, October 10, 2014

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Review by Matt Finley

Disney's ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE, HORRIBLE, NO GOOD, VERY BAD DAY is the latest effort to wring a feature-length family film from a single-sitting children's picture book, in the case Judith Viorst’s 1972 classic of the same name. Having sat through similar adaptations of wildly varying quality, from Spike Jones' sublime WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE to the execrable THE CAT IN THE HAT, the bracingly hilarious CLOUDY WITH A CHANCE OF MEATBALLS to average ol’ JUMANJI, I had no idea where on this specialized cinematic bell curve ALEXANDER, directed by Miguel Arteta (CEDAR RAPIDS), would fall.

The answer: right at the tippy-top peak of mediocrity, superlatively lukewarm.

The first twenty minutes or so roll through a rough approximation of the book, wherein Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) endures a notably crummy birthday-eve starting with a wad of gum in his hair and culminating with a science lab fire. When his unemployed, stay-at-home dad, Ben (Steve Carell), career-climbing editor mom, Kelly (Jennifer Garner), thespian sister, Emily (Kerris Dorsey), and prom-obsessed brother, Anthony (Dylan Minnette) fail to show him any sympathy, he makes a birthday wish that his entire family learn what it's like to have the titular terrible et al day.

What ensues is an occasionally funny series of increasingly madcap misadventures wherein Alex's family learns just how excruciatingly crappy a bad day can be. Setpieces include Emily's cough syrup-addled stage debut, Anthony's F.U.B.A.R. driving test, a job interview for Ben that literally goes up in flames and Kelly’s book launch, where a ribald printing error leads to certain disaster at a public reading by none other than Dick Van Dyke.

It's all by-the-numbers comic foibles that lean heavily on slapstick. What’s surprising is how tame and measured much of it feels. While Carell is a veteran to these types of roles, no one else in the cast particularly sticks out as a great physical comedian. It doesn't help that the family’s individual ordeals rarely occur simultaneously, resulting in an ordered parade of bite-size shenanigans rather than the sort of wholesale mayhem to which I was hoping the film might escalate.

Likewise, the dialogue is decent but forgettable, a fact that's thrown into even sharper relief by cameos from comedic heavy-hitters Megan Mullally, Donald Glover and Jennifer Coolidge, all of whom put in good performances despite scant screentime and middling material. At least, to Disney's infinite credit, the film is mercifully light on pandering pop culture references. And Dick Van Dyke is predictably charming.

Where Viorst’s 36-page book is a simple tale meant to gently introduce kids to the fact that sometimes the bear eats you, the movie joins the family film subgenre of careless-wish-gone-haywire. For good examples of this, see BIG and FREAKY FRIDAY. The reason ALEXANDER AND THE TERRIBLE HORRIBLE NO GOOD VERY BAD DAY never succeeds on the same level as either of those films is that the result of the errant spell (some marginally bad [but never, like,ebola bad] stuff happening) and the resulting moral (without bad days, we wouldn't appreciate good ones) don't pack the same catharsis as either body swap hexes or perspective-rattling self-awareness.

The characters and, by extension, their day-to-day outlooks don't really seem to change all that much - they just get some shiny new platitudes in which wrap themselves up and slog onward. (2 out of 4 Stars)

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