“If this goes well,” says Nina (Megan Mullally), “I’ll make you the vice-president of Children’s Lit and Young Adult.” Kelly (Jennifer Garner) looks back at her boss, suit perfectly pressed, hair meticulously coiffed, eyes wide with gratitude. The “this” is the rollout of the company’s latest book, one that means to get children ready to “jump on the potty!” Really, how could it not go well?
As you’re watching a movie called Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, you probably have some ideas. And so, even as the eager Kelly (a performance that finds Garner at her super-sweetest) assures Nina her event will go well, you see in Kelly’s so very brief, not-quite-frown face that the promotion might be its own problem, as she has four kids and already works too many hours. But no matter! Her husband, rocket scientist Ben (Steve Carell), has been out of work for seven months, at home with the red-faced baby every family in a movie like this one must have. As Kelly explains when she gets home with her maybe-good news, a raise can only be helpful. Right?
The catastrophe that will be Kelly’s day gets a jumpstart from her son, Alexander (Ed Oxenbould), turning 12 on that very day. As it happens, he’s having a bad day on the day Kelly learns she might be promoted and Ben learns he has a promising interview with a video games company. Frustrated after a day full of disasters — gum in his hair, an accident with a Bunsen burner, a rejection by Becky (Sidney Fullmer), the blond classmate who walks in slow motion, and the news that a horrendously popular boy is having a party on the same afternoon as his birthday party — Alexander looks glumly across the dinner table to see his parents beaming over the baby, insistently optimistic over their big tomorrows.
As the camera frames each person in a flattering close-up, Alexander also listens to his perfect sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) boasting of her perfect rehearsals as Peter Pan, looking forward to the perfect opening night’s performance, which also happens to be on Alexander’s birthday. At the same time, older brother Anthony (Dylan Minette) holds forth on his upcoming perfect prom with his perfect date Celia (Bella Thorne), the stuck-up girl you’ve already seen instruct Anthony on how to text her properly, for instance, always closing with “xoxo.”
Being only nearly 12, Alexander can’t see past his own disappointments or take pleasure in everyone else’s triumphs. And so he does what he has to do in a movie with this title: he makes a birthday wish that everyone will have the kind of day he thinks he has every day. And so they do, complete with family bickering and bonding, slapstick antics and some bodily functions, cars crashing and a pirate shirt set aflame at a Japanese restaurant — which is where they all end up because that’s the only public place where the pirate shirt might be set aflame.
Based on Judith Viorst’s book, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day doesn’t so much tell a story as it lists disasters. Being a movie, it tends to skip about, from one individual’s trauma to another, and so doesn’t maintain a consistent perspective. No one in the movie knows how badly everyone else’s day is going; you know all. It’s a typical structure, if not exactly original, and it suggests the slamming into a mold process that such a movie must take on. You, not being Alexander or Kelly or even the rocket scientist dad, might be aware that the director, Miguel Arteta, has been a fiercely original filmmaker, with the remarkable first feature Star Maps, The Good Girl, and the disconcerting and excellent Chuck & Buck, as well as some odd-enough TV episodes to his credit.
Kids’ movies, for all their nods toward kids’ inspired chaos and inventiveness, toward what might be disconcerting in their behaviors or excellent in their solutions to problems, tend not to be very chaotic or inventive. They’re usually not so excellent either, but instead reaffirm what you already think is so. For all their bright colors and hyper-action, they’re formulaic. By these standards, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day goes well. It works very hard, hits lots of touchstones, and ends up exactly where you know it will. Still, you might feel that briefest of moments, mirrored in Kelly’s face at film’s start, when she realizes that even if it goes well, it’s not going so well.