Everyone has had one of those days where nothing seems to go right, where everything seems to be just terrible, horrible, no good, and just plain very bad. It’s one reason why Judith Viorst’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day has been popular since it was first published in 1972. The book is a slight 32 pages highlighting every bad thing that happens to the boy Alexander on one very horrible day. He spends the entire day thinking that perhaps life would be better in Australia. Disney’s new film Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day begins with Alexander (winningly played by Ed Oxenbould), the day before his 12th birthday, experiencing that bad day. Trouble is, the worst his day gets, the better the rest of the family’s day gets. His mom (Jennifer Garner) is up for a promotion, his unemployed but always positive dad (Steve Carell) has a job interview with a gaming company, his older brother is on his way to the prom with the hottest girl in school and his older sister is about to star in the school play. And nobody seems to understand Alexander’s bad day. So at 12:01 am on his 12th birthday, Alexander makes himself a sundae with a candle and before he blows it out, he wishes that for just once, the rest of the family would experience a day as bad as his. And from here, the movie expands on the original book in wonderfully funny and warm ways, turning a one-joke story into the best family movie in years, and one of the funniest movies I’ve seen in a very long time.
Writer Ron Lieber and director Miguel Arteta create a winning film by not depicting the typical families seen in most films and television shows recently. The Coopers aren’t a dysfunctional family with lots of angst and issues, but a genuinely winning combination of parents and kids who figure out how to pull together and overcome difficult moments. There are many terrible things that happen over the course of the cursed day, but they aren’t just the usual combinations of dumb sight gags and pratfalls which seem to be the bulk of most “family” movies. Even better, the terrible things that happen aren’t truly terrible things but ones that might happen to any family: waking up with a pimple the day of the prom, getting sick the day of the play, messing up a big job interview, and screwing up the debut of a new children’s book–with the help of none other than Dick Van Dyke (in a very painfully funny cameo). As the parents, Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner play well off each other and both have genuinely funny moments in the film and bring warmth to their characters that is frequently missing from stories like this. In addition, they are both smart, hard-working and loving parents who do their best to make a bad better. Unlike many sitcom parents, they actually are smarter than their kids, which is a pleasant surprise. The kids in the film all do well, with the boys getting the best moments, especially those with Dylan Minnette, who plays the oldest brother, Anthony. A character that in any other movie would be just the typical rude and crude teen has some very nice and funny interactions with his parents and siblings, all the while struggling to maintain a relationship with a stuck up girlfriend.
It’s much funnier than I expected, with many genuine laughs in a day filled with a driving test that goes horribly wrong, a visit to a Benihana-style restaurant that goes terribly wrong, a performance of Peter Pan that is just very bad. As a family of six, it’s scary how many times we turned to each other and said, “That’s just like us!” The humor on screen works because it comes from real life’s small crazy moments. My wife and I could easily relate to so many moments in the film–sleeping through the alarm, forgetting a kid at school, trying to maintain a hectic life with kids coming and going like crazy–and yes, we even cried a few times because it all seemed so real.
Is Alexander ground-breaking, life changing cinema destined to win awards? No, not at all. But Alexander is easily the best family movie in years, pleasantly surprising, very entertaining, and surprisingly touching. It’s one of my favorite films of this year.