Like so many family movies of the past, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" rests on the idea of the innocent and the unsuspecting caught in embarrassing, but amusing, situations. I believe it's technically referred to as the shock-and-scream effect.
All of the Coopers — including the parents, played by Jennifer Garner and Steve Carell, and the baby — get many shocks and deliver many screams. Some are in the style of the E.T.-Drew Barrymore closet confrontation; others are reminiscent of the "Home Alone" Macaulay Culkin scream. A few evoke Munch's "The Scream," though I don't think Edvard had humor in mind.
The terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day in question, like the movie itself, is not so terribly horrible. Not so terribly terrific either. And at the moment, modestly amusing does not stave off that desire for a really great live-action family film after years of watching the terrain land-grabbed by animation. A "Wreck-It Ralph" reference in "Alexander" lands yet another sucker punch, unintended though it might be.
Judith Viorst's beloved children's book is wildly expanded and updated for the big screen — cellphone gaffs abound. Indeed, Rob Lieber's script overflows with bad luck that begins when the about-to-turn-12 Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) wishes his family could experience his loser life for just one day.
A cupcake, a candle and a birthday wish in the wee hours of the morning set things in motion. No one escapes: not his perfect older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette), not talented older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey). Even baby Trevor doesn't get a pass.
For most of the Cooper clan, the day starts out promising. Ben (Carell) has a cool job interview with a hip video game developer. Kelly (Garner) is about to be named a vice president of her publishing company. Meanwhile, Emily's nailed the lead in "Peter Pan," and Anthony is going to junior prom with his dream date, Celia (Bella Thorne). Trevor (twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) is required only to look adorable and handles it perfectly. As Anthony says at breakfast, "Hash-tag blessed, you know?"
But soon enough the terrible, horrible starts piling up. Like Emily's very bad cold… #lame.
Director Miguel Arteta is best known for a darker brand of subversive behavior like the comedy clash of Hollywood dreams and a family prostitution ring in his 1997 Independent Spirit award-nominated "Star Maps." But his most defining work thus far remains 2002's "The Good Girl," which gave Jennifer Aniston an excellent stage to do drama and disappointment at a time when she desperately needed some distance from sitcom Rachel and "Friends."
Arteta sets a brisk pace for "Alexander," barely letting one disaster hit before another is underway. This is a Disney production, so everything is bright and shiny and suburban without the blight. I swear there is nary a cloud to darken this very bad day. It's made even more vibrant by a crack crew, which includes director of photographer Terry Stacey, production designer Michael Corenblith and costume designer Nancy Steiner. An impossibly up-tempo beat courtesy of Christopher Beck is the cherry on top.
But instead of all that polished precision helping "Alexander," the film quickly starts to feel more like the director is working through a to do list, though I'm sure with a smile.
Dotting every "i" begins to steal some of the terrible, horrible fun that might have been possible. Case in point: Dick Van Dyke (an uncredited cameo) and the awkward misprint. His new children's book, the one Kelly's in charge of, has an unfortunate typo that turns an ordinary word into something slightly scatological. Disaster strikes at a reading packed with little ones and in the mishmash that follows, Van Dyke's silly signature antics don't have a chance.
There are funny moments, but most of them already made it into the trailer — like the disastrous dinner at a Benihana-style restaurant. (Fire, fish tanks, a pirate shirt.)
As it does in the fire-and-fish-tank incident, Carell's impeccable comic timing keeps most of his Ben bits afloat. Garner's distressed motherly smiles and screams carry Kelly for a while. Dorsey, Minnette and Thorne put in a good show. The Vargas twins remain as adorable as they were in "Neighbors," laughing, smiling, crying and chewing a green magic marker on cue.
Now to Alexander. Making his big-screen debut, Oxenbould is pretty adorable too — comfortable on screen, a winning smile, an endearing hint of a lisp, so even his imperfections are close to perfect. But for most of the day, the young actor is asked to keep Alexander in a state of slightly apologetic guilt when you really do wish he'd take a little more mischievous delight in the mishaps. I guess it's only in the movies that wishes come true.
'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day'
MPAA rating: PG for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language
Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes