With a book this popular and an audience this devoted, you just know there is going to be a furor over the liberties the filmmakers have taken with the details.
Gone Girl? Oh, no, that’s yesterday’s news and last week’s opening.
This time we’re talking about Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, Miguel Arteta’s film version of Judith Viorst’s children’s book. The film retains some elements of the book, which has sold more than 4 million copies since its publication in 1972, but screenwriter Ron Lieber has added a lot, by necessity (the book is short And it turns out the film is not terrible or horrible or very bad. No good? Not that, either. It’s actually some good, with some laugh-out-loud moments that help make up for a sappiness factor that is not present in the book, in which bad things happen — and keep happening — to a boy.
This is a Disney movie, so things can’t be too disastrous for too long. Happiness will out. But when things do go wrong, the movie goes right, for the most part.
Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) is a 12-year-old boy used to having bad days. On this day, he gets gum in his hair, trips over a skateboard and spills the drink on his nightstand. This is before even leaving his bedroom.
There are other disasters, including setting the chemistry lab on fire with the notes of the girl he has a crush on (Sidney Fullmer) and learning that a popular kid is throwing an epic birthday party the next day — the same day of Alexander’s party.
If that’s not bad enough, everything is going right for his family. Ben, his dad (Steve Carell) is an aerospace engineer, but he has landed a job at a gaming company. Kelly, his mom (Jennifer Garner), is in line for a promotion at the publishing company where she works, as long as she can pull off the debut of a potty-training book. Anthony, his older brother (Dylan Minnette), is dating Celia, the best-looking girl in school (Bella Thorne), and is taking her to the prom, and Emily, his older sister (Kerris Dorsey), has landed the lead in the school production of “Peter Pan.”
You get the idea. It’s all too much. Even Baby Trevor (Elise and Zoey Vargas) is happy. So at midnight Alexander sneaks downstairs and fixes himself a birthday cupcake and makes a wish: that his family could have just one rotten day, so they’d know how it feels.
Perhaps you can guess where this is leading.
The next day everyone oversleeps. Anthony wakes up with an angry zit on his forehead. Emily, who had to rehearse in the car, left the interior light on, killing the battery, so Kelly has to find some other way to get to a reading of the new book that features Dick Van Dyke. Plus, Emily gets sick because it was cold in the van. Ben turns out to be a lot older than his would-be employers, and has to bring Baby Trevor to the interview. Things go further south from there.
So bad, in fact, that the film is at times in danger of slipping into masochism. But Arteta, who directed Cedar Rapids and Youth in Revolt, among other films not much like this one, manages to avoid that. Carell and Garner help a lot on that front, too. Garner, who plays an obsessive mother in Men, Women & Children, is much more enjoyable here. Not because her character is sweeter, though she is, but because she’s willing to get tough when she needs to, like in a scene in which she is trying to get to work but everything keeps going wrong; one bit feels like a nod to the Naked Gun movies, and that’s a compliment.
The film does not have the courage of the book, which felt no need to tie a nice pretty bow on everything. But it’s fun enough for a good while (it’s only 81 minutes long), and that’s enough.
Cast: Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Ed Oxenbould.
Director: Miguel Arteta.
Screenwriter: Rob Lieber.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 82 minutes. Rude humor including some reckless behavior and language. Playing at area theaters.