Friday, October 10, 2014

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day: Modest but enjoyable

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated PG, and needlessly, for mild rude humor

By Derrick Bang

Kid-oriented family films seem an endangered species these days, because too many Hollywood execs confuse “sweet” with “stupid.” Most so-called family comedies succumb to the sort of wretched excess and mindless slapstick that very nearly destroyed the Disney studio, back in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, foreground left) and his family — from left, Anthony (Dylan
Minnette), Emily (Kerris Dorsey), Ben (Steve Carell), Kelly (Jennifer Garner) and Baby
Trevor — react to the newest calamity during a ghastly day laden with crises.
It really is true: In Hollywood, as everywhere else, those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

On top of which, the core premise is flawed: Family films need not rely on the massive destruction of personal property, or on adults made to look inane while in the presence of obnoxious and overly precocious brats. Nor is it necessary to slide into icky sentimentality while delivering a few mellow truths.

Some filmmakers understand this, with the recent trilogy drawn from Jeff Kinney’s Diary of a Wimpy Kid books being a prominent example. They carefully maneuvered the fine line between genuine humor and dumb farce, between heartfelt emotion and slushy schmaltz.

Director Miguel Arteta and scripter Rob Lieber also get the proper mix, with their big-screen adaptation of Judith Viorst’s popular children’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.

Full disclosure dictates, however, the acknowledgment that this film shares absolutely nothing with Viorst’s book, aside from its title and core premise. Former kids who remember having the book read aloud to them, back when it was published in 1972, are apt to wonder what the heck happened to their favorite story. And the parents doing the reading are certain to be just as surprised.

Granted, it’s not possible to make a feature-length film from a 32-page picture book; some expansion was essential. But you have to wonder why Lieber messed with details such as Alexander’s two older brothers, who in this film morph into an older brother and sister, along with a bonus infant brother. Part of the original Alexander’s bad day concerned the belittling behavior of his jerky older siblings, whereas Arteta and Lieber go out of their way to emphasize harmony and mutual respect between all members of the Cooper family.

So, okay; that’s a reasonable alternate approach, and it better sets up the calamities that erupt in this very bad day.

To elaborate:

This particular Alexander (Ed Oxenbould, perhaps remembered from the TV series Puberty Blues) endures his personal bad day as something of a prologue, on the day before his 12th birthday. It begins when he wakes up with chewing gum in his hair, and climaxes with a catastrophe in the school science lab, thanks to his efforts to flirt with the girl of his dreams (Sidney Fullmer, appropriately adorable as Becky).

Plans for Alexander’s pending birthday party fall apart when all of his potential guests bail, preferring to attend a last-minute party announced by the most popular kid in school.

Back at the home front, everybody is too distracted to be sympathetic. Alexander’s long-unemployed father, Ben (Steve Carell), has become a resolute house-husband — branded a “fommy” (father/mommy) — while trying to secure job interviews. Mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner), despite anxieties over missing the milestone events experienced by Baby Trevor, spends far too much time as a mover and shaker at a children’s book publishing house, under the thumb of a tyrannical boss (Megan Mullally).

Older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette), who excels at everything, is looking forward to attending the school prom the following night with dishy girlfriend Celia (rising teen sensation Bella Thorne, recently seen with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore in Blended). To make the date even more romantic, he hopes to get his driver’s license that same afternoon, in order to transport Celia himself.

Older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey), a budding actress, has been busily prepping for her starring performance in the school production of Peter Pan ... also taking place the next day.

Naturally, then, that looming day expands to include Ben’s first important job interview in months, and a promotional event for the most recent title entrusted to Kelly, to be unveiled during a public reading by no less than Dick Van Dyke.

And, so, feeling inadequate and neglected by all around him, Alexander stays awake until midnight, in order to enjoy an official birthday sundae. By himself. At which point he makes what Rod Serling once called The Big, Tall Wish ... and expresses the hope that everybody else in his family could experience a bad day, so they’d better understand and appreciate the powerless, overwhelmed life he seems to lead.

Cue the arrival of the following morning, which turns into a truly bad day ... not for Alexander, but for everybody else.

Granted, the escalating chaos involves a bit of exaggerated nonsense, and, yes, some destruction of personal property. But not to excess, and not at the expense of the simple yet valuable moral: Families that stick together, survive together. If Alexander’s parents and siblings are made to look a bit foolish, that’s a lesson as well: A little mortification never killed anybody. And it teaches perspective.

Arteta’s film isn’t much of an actor’s showcase; he settles for sincerity as needed, and generally gets it. Carell and Garner capably handle their roles as well-meaning parents who try too hard, particularly in terms of over-scheduling (an affectation that’s funny all by itself, since it rings so true). Minnette goes through a nice character arc during the course of Anthony’s various calamities; it could be argued that he learns the most from these experiences, which lends some gentle warmth to the story’s finale.

Dorsey has a good time when Emily overdoes some cold medicine, and Thorne is very persuasive as a self-centered bee-yatch who (sadly) has Anthony wrapped around her little finger.

Comic veteran Jennifer Coolidge is hilarious as Anthony’s driving test examiner, and Van Dyke makes the most of his presence during the book reading, which goes ... slightly awry.

Things build to an entertaining and satisfying (if highly improbable) conclusion, which takes advantage of Alexander’s passion for all things Australian. I do question whether Kelly has been left in a good place, though, in terms of her effort to juggle career and family; Arteta and Lieber gloss over that little detail.

The Southern California setting feels appropriate in terms of the publishing house where Kelly works, and the software company where Ben has his fateful interview; in all other respects, the Coopers are fairly ordinary folks who could be living in any mid-size American city.

And that, ultimately, is the story’s strongest element: Although some of the various misfortunes are heightened for comic effect, the incidents themselves are fairly credible. We’ve been there, endured that. (Well ... maybe not all at once.) And while their effort owes little to Viorst’s book, Arteta and Lieber have crafted a modest little dramedy that will amuse, entertain and (gently) enlighten young viewers, without insulting or boring their adult companions.

And, at an economical 81 minutes, the film doesn’t overstay its welcome. Arteta and Lieber know when to get off the stage, and they do so at just the right moment.

I wish more filmmakers could learn that lesson.

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