A noticeable aspect of Judith Viorst’s book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, originally published in 1972, was that said terrible, horrible, etc. day applied to the title character and no one else. This only seems like an insignificant detail; by telling the story entirely from Alexander’s perspective, we are in a sense given a general psychological profile of children, who, because of their inexperience, have a tendency to distort relatively minor misfortunes into devastating traumas. Even though this insight is just as true today as it was forty-two years ago, the makers of Disney’s modernized film adaptation nevertheless take a different approach; rather than Alexander having a bad day all by himself, the rest of his immediate family has to experience it right along with him.
You know me. I’m the first to defend unfaithful film adaptations, since I firmly believe that entertainment and watchability are more important to a movie than accuracy (no one agrees with me on this, but never mind). In the case of Alexander, however, it’s clear that Viorst had a better understanding of the material than screenwriter Rob Lieber and director Miguel Arteta. This movie is juvenile, exhausting, and shameless, scene after manic scene in service of a message so sentimental that it should probably be printed on a second-tier birthday card. Many of its jokes are merely inane, although a select few of them breach the limits of what has been deemed acceptable for a PG-rated family film. The comedic shifts are in fact so great that I’m forced to wonder if there was some kind of creative tug of war all throughout production.
The message of the book wasn’t very profound, although it was undeniably true: Some days are simply better than others. The message of the film, while pleasant and ideal, is so mechanical that you can practically smell the hydraulic fluid: As long as you have your family to see you through, a bad day might not seem so bad after all, and in retrospect could even be thought of as a good day. Handled with sincerity, even the most contrived of movie messages can be forgiven. If, however, a message is at the mercy of a forced emotional climax, we have a problem. Such is the case with Alexander, in which everyone in the title character’s family makes the most immediate and profound of turnarounds at just such a time when it’s possible for them to do so. How can they be at each other’s throats one second and lovingly banded together the next?
The book, while representing the skewed and melodramatic perspective of a child, was nevertheless entirely grounded in reality, the title character simply having to endure his bad day until it’s over. The film, on the other hand, entertains a similar notion of magic to that seen in 1997’s Liar, Liar; on the stroke of midnight on his twelfth birthday, Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) makes a wish that the rest of his seemingly perfect and happy family experiences one day’s worth of the pain and embarrassment he feels every single day, and lo and behold, his wish comes true. Starting the following morning, everyone has the absolute worst day they could possibly have. By this, I mean that every available opportunity for the filmmakers to turn ordinary situations into slapstick vignettes is taken.
Take Alexander’s cheerfully optimistic father, Ben (Steve Carell), an unemployed rocket scientist turned stay-at-home dad; his attempts to interview for a new job as a video-game designer, which his previous job somehow qualified him for, is complicated by repeat interruptions of family drama, forcing him to juggle many crises at once. This would including having to take his infant son with him to his interview, where, of course, the kid chews on a green marker and gets permanent ink dyed to his face. Alexander’s mother, Kelly (Jennifer Garner), whose promised promotion to vice president of a children’s book publishing house is threatened when misprinted copies of their latest book ends up at a public reading with Dick Van Dyke. And then there are Alexander’s two other siblings, his older brother, Anthony (Dylan Minnette), having been suspended from school the same day as his driver’s test, his older sister, Emily (Kerris Dorsey), having caught a cold the same day she was set to appear in her school’s production of Peter Pan.
Other complications work their way into lives of Alexander and his family, including Anthony trying to impress his snobbish girlfriend in preparation for the junior prom, Emily getting disturbingly loopy after drinking down a whole bottle of cough syrup, and the Herculean effort to throw Alexander an Australian-themed birthday party, during which a kangaroo and a crocodile get loose. Setting aside the questionable likelihood that Alexander’s parents would be able to afford such an elaborate party when only one of them is working, one has to wonder what the thinking was behind the gag in which the hired entertainment arrives, and Ben realizes he mistakenly hired male strippers. Had more effort been put into Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, the strippers would have understood on their own, before they started performing, that they were surrounded by children and that their particular act is, by God, not intended for them.