Given its premise, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” could have been a lot more horrible and no good than it is. In fact, at a quick 82 minutes, this straight-arrow family comedy about a day when misfortune comes to visit and stays awhile goes down relatively painlessly if one considers the repetitive nature of the pranks and pitfalls and the predictable message about family togetherness prevailing over adversity; just think, gang, we could be living in Syria.
Thirty-two-page children’s books with 18-syllable titles that are basically about one thing aren’t the easiest properties to adapt into feature-length scripts, which may be why it took 42 years for someone to figure out how to handle Judith Viorst’s perennial, which has sold more than four million copies since its publication in 1972 and has spawned three sequels, the latest published this year.
Screenwriter Rob Lieber’s way of filling out the conceit to feature-length running time is to have atrocious things happen not only to the 11-year-old title character but to his entire family and spread the calamities across two days. If this just seems like too much negativity to contemplate, or too close to real life, this exercise in schadenfreude is, in the event, surprisingly good-natured and, under Miguel Arteta’s fleet direction, seemingly over in the snap of a finger.
“The day before” the big day in question, the agreeable Alexander (open-faced Australian Ed Oxenbould) receives a mighty blow upon learning that the most popular kid in school is throwing a party the next night at the same time as his own 12th birthday party, meaning that no one, including the girl he likes, will come to his bash. Also on tap the next day: His unemployed dad Ben (Steve Carell) has a big job interview with a video gaming company, mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is overseeing a celebrity book reading event for her hard-to-please boss, teen brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is chauffeuring snooty girlfriend Celia (Bella Thorne) to the junior prom provided he passes his driver’s test, and sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) is starring in a school production of “Peter Pan.” Plus the baby of the family, Trevor (Elise and Zoey Vargas), can be counted upon to continue crying a lot.
The worst day begins with everyone waking up late. Alexander is the recipient of the only good news: The popular kid has chicken pox, so Alexander’s bash is back on full steam. Otherwise, Murphy’s Law lays siege to the family: Emily becomes ill as well, endangering her performance; the car battery dies on the day of Anthony’s driving test, a calamity that also forces Kelly to bike to her event (featuring an unbilled Dick Van Dyke) that’s beset by a PG-lewd book misprint, and the lack of a baby sitter forces Ben to take baby Trevor along to meet his potential new bosses, who are half his age.
The arguable comic highlight is Anthony’s driving test, which is presided over by a farcically overbearing woman (Jennifer Coolidge). Kelly’s mishaps with her author’s event simply seem too preposterous to be funny, while the “Peter Pan” misadventures are similarly low-voltage.
On the other hand, the interplay between Ben and the gamer geeks is not unamusing, even if Ben’s tolerance for agreeably filling the role of a “fommy” (father-mommy) would seem to exceed ordinary limits. The homily-laden wrap-up, stressing the upside of bad days, is enough to make you hold your nose, but it only lasts a moment.
The cast is uniformly game and the filmmakers have thoughtfully included something at the end for all the moms who will drag the small fry to see this — a bunch of hunky Aussie cowboy strippers who begin performing before they realize they’re at a kid’s birthday party.
“Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” a Disney release, is rated PG by the Motion Picture Association of America for “rude humor, including some reckless behavior and language.” Running time: 82 minutes.