Mark Reviews Movies

Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Miguel Arteta

Cast: Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Ed Oxenbould, Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey, Bella Thorne, Sidney Fullmer, Megan Mullally, Mekai Matthew Curtis, Lincoln Melcher

MPAA Rating: PG (for rude humor including some reckless behavior and language)

Running Time: 1:21

Release Date: 10/10/14

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Review by Mark Dujsik | October 9, 2014

There is no need for logic in farce, but it certainly helps. Take a scene in Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day (The comma is your friend) in which the eldest son of the family takes his driving test. It has already been established that the family's day has been and will continue to be a terrible, horrible, no good, and very bad one, so it's no surprise that the test goes terribly, horribly, no good, etc. wrong. The tester tricks the boy to answer his cellphone while driving and yells at him, causing the boy to violently swerve into oncoming traffic, take out several parking meters, and otherwise damage the family van and put himself and others in unnecessary peril.

This is a bit of an overreaction, wouldn't you say?  Farce, in a way, depends on overreaction, but good farce knows to keep it grounded in some kind of reality or, at least, in tune with whatever basic characterizations have been afforded to the players. Nothing in the movie suggests that the kid is the type to completely lose control of himself in the way the scene requires, and our experience with such a situation certainly makes us doubt that the boy's response has a foundation in reality.

We're not considering these things in the moment, of course. The primary concern is that the scene simply isn't funny. That's when the question of why it isn't comes into play. To put it a little more simply than the aforementioned reasons, it's because the scene, like the overwhelming majority of the movie's comic setpieces, tries too hard. This is a movie that forces its characters into kooky scenarios with little interest if those scenarios make any sense for the characters or in any form of real-world experience.

It starts because Alexander (Ed Oxenbould), the middle son in the family, has had a history with terrible, horrible, etc. days, and no one in his family seems to care. His father Ben (Steve Carrell) has been out of work for months; he's trying to juggle taking care of the family's newborn baby and looking for a job. He has a job interview lined up on Alexander's birthday. Alexander's mother Kelly (Jennifer Garner) works in public relations for a publishing company. She's trying to find a balance between her professional and personal lives, and there's a big event on Alexander's birthday that could seal a promotion.

Anthony (Dylan Minnette), the eldest son, is trying to please a perfectionist girlfriend (Bella Thorne), and Alexander's birthday is also the day Anthony might finally get his driver's license and drive his girlfriend to prom. Emily (Kerris Dorsey), the sole female sibling, is preparing for the role of Peter Pan in the school play, which, as you might have guessed, is also on Alexander's birthday. Just after midnight on his birthday, Alexander makes himself a sundae, blows out a candle, and wishes that his family would experience the kind of terrible, etc. day to which he has become accustomed.

Thus begins the day. Ben's second job interview at a restaurant turns sour when the sleeves of his shirt are set ablaze, although, considering that the interview has consisted of everyone getting drunk and Ben having shrimp flung into his mouth, the accident doesn't quite seem like the potential deal-breaker the movie makes it out to be. Kelly's celebrity reading of a book about potty training goes badly when it turns out the printers changed the word "jump" to "dump," which doesn't even sound like something that could happen (Dick Van Dyke is the celebrity, and he has a self-deprecating line that calls the relevancy of his cameo into question). Anthony's girlfriend dumps him, and Emily gets a cold on the day of her big performance, resulting in her getting high on cough syrup and single-handedly ruining the production (Ben's after-the-fact warning about medicinal abuse feels false, given that we're supposed to laugh at her antics).

Rob Lieber's screenplay (based on Judith Viorst's book) offers too much to too little comic effect, and the previously described events are just the most prominent situations in a cascading series of misfortunes. There's plenty more, but none of them is particularly funny. The movie's few laughs come from the lower-key moments, such as Ben's first interview, which doesn't try anything more than observing the awkwardness of having a serious job interview while a baby is banging into a glass wall in the participants' peripheral vision. Carrell and Garner smartly focus on a gradually increasing sense of frustration with events, and both provide some genuinely amusing jokes during what seem to be improvised riffs.

In between the chaos of its madcap situations, director Miguel Arteta finds some time (during the course of the movie's graciously and admirably succinct 80 minutes) to give us the sweeter, more endearing side of this family. They come together to support each other as everything goes wrong, and that keeps Alexander and the Terrible Horrible No Good Very Bad Day grounded in at least some form of emotional reality. It may not be much, but it is something.

Copyright 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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