‘Alexander and the Terrible’ Review: Not Bad Enough
When I was a lad my mother used to ask me how my day was after school. I usually told her, “Today was the worst day of my life.” Her response, never failing, was, “Well, at least you got it out of the way.”
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day isn’t quite as pointedly zen as my mother was. Or as smarmy about it. But it’s a perfectly harmless Disney flick about remaining positive in the face of crappy circumstances. The older I get, the more I realize that I was very, very, VERY wrong about how harsh my life was in elementary school. But the message about keeping things in perspective has served me well, and it’s reasonably well conveyed here too. I can’t really complain about that.
What I can complain about is that Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day isn’t funny.
Ed Oxenbould plays Alexander, a kid who has a pretty bad day at school, even though the rest of his family had the best day of their lives. Before you can say “schadenfreude” he’s made a wish on a Liar Liar birthday cake for his father (Steve Carell), mother (Jennifer Garner), brother (Dylan Minnette) and sister (Kerris Dorsey) to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day too.
Sure enough, the family wakes up and everything goes wrong from minute one. The battery won’t start in Garner’s car, even though she has a big presentation today. Carell is stuck babysitting in the middle of an important job interview. Minnette is suddenly be-pimpled, on the outs with his girlfriend and en route to a disastrous driver’s license exam. And Dorsey’s leading role in a school production of “Peter Pan” is in danger of going to an understudy after she develops a sudden cold. Chugging cough medication like a Red Bull was probably a bad idea too.
Alexander is the latest in a relatively short line of existential nightmare comedies like After Hours, Quick Change, Evil Dead II and the Looney Tunes short “Duck Amuck.” The gag has nothing to do with the characters or their lives and everything to do with how malevolent the filmmaker can be at screwing with them. It’s a cynical little genre, but a wonderfully funny one when pulled off like a sadistic game of The Sims. The trick is to divide the audience’s loyalties between the cruel machinations of fate and the hapless poor bastards who fall victim to it. We want to see them suffer, but in the end, we do want to see them succeed… or at least persevere long enough to get to the closing credits.
But Alexander is not a cynical movie. This is Disney, damn it. Director Miguel Arteta lends Alexander an overwhelmingly positive tone that makes most of the madcap antics seem cheerful, and not impish. The timing is too slow to achieve total screwball, and the heroes are too zippy to let this terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day get to them. The most they ever do is kick some garbage cans and then muddle through. And that’s just not very funny, is it?
And while their positivity does serve the film’s message – that a bad day doesn’t necessarily mean a bad life, and that every obstacle can be overcome with a positive attitude – it doesn’t serve the message terribly well. Alexander’s family never achieves true desperation, so reaching a philosophical state about their terrible, horrible, etc. day doesn’t seem like much of an accomplishment.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day isn’t much of an accomplishment either, by dear lord in heaven is it harmless. And the cast is likable enough that getting through their misadventures never feels like a chore. In an era where family-oriented entertainments are released only sporadically, and often feel insidious and tainted, a film in which the only real problem is that it’s too “nice” might come as a welcome respite for audiences looking for something that will engage their kids without warping them. That’s not terrible. That’s not horrible. And while it isn’t especially good, it’s certainly not bad.