Sick of his seemingly endless run of bad luck, and frustrated by the rest of his family’s can-do attitude and eternal good fortune, Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) uses his birthday to wish that father Ben (Steve Carell), mother Kelly (Jennifer Garner), brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) and sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) might finally know what it feels like to have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. Unfortunately for the Coopers, the next day is of particular importance for each of them: Ben has his first interview in months, Kelly is organising a high-profile book launch, Anthony has to pass his driving test in order to drive his girlfriend to prom, and Emily makes her debut as Peter Pan in the school play. Anthony thinks nothing of it when his parents oversleep, but as things continue to go wrong he begins to wonder if his wish just might have come true.
When we meet the Coopers they are returning home in a door-less car, shedding bits of bumper as they pull into their drive; Ben is wearing a pirate’s blouse, Anthony is wearing an outdated tuxedo and baby Trevor is dyed green; and as if that’s not enough there is a crocodile stopping them from crossing the threshold. As a teaser it’s not exactly The Hangover, but as far as PG-level anarchy goes it’s suitably intriguing and perfectly silly. Like the very best of Disney’s live-action projects, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is naughty enough to appeal to older children apparently no longer served by the studio’s animated films while still being wholesome enough for the whole family. It even includes well-rounded adult characters who are neither inept, doomed or evil.
Oxenbould makes for a likeable lead, and you can’t help but feel for him as he tries desperately — but always unsuccessfully — to go about his day without getting grass stains on his trousers or chewing-gum in his hair. He loves Australia, he likes a girl and he’s looking forward to his birthday party — he’s just an ordinary kid, not a singer or a sorcerer, and it’s easy to root for him. The real joy, however, is in watching the rest of his family cope with their changing fortunes, as they continue to espouse positivism even as everything collapses around them. As much fun as Carell is in the Anchorman films his true talent lies in his ability to play the straight man, and Ben’s determination and denial just make the pratfalls funnier and funnier. Garner’s great too, maybe the best she’s ever been in a comic role, and you really feel for her as she stubs her toe, finds her car battery exhausted and forced to cycle across town in high heels to try and stop Dick Van Dyke from doing a public reading. It’s ridiculous, yes, but not unbelievable.
The entire cast is on top form, whether it’s Megan Mullaly as Kelly’s Boss or Jennifer Coolidge as Anthony’s driving instructor — two comedienne’s you perhaps wouldn’t associate with the Mickey Mouse Club. Indeed, many of the biggest laughs come out of the relative left-field. You’d expect Anthony to develop a zit before prom or Emily to wake up with a cold on the morning of her play but the film doesn’t stop there: Anthony becomes awkward with his mother after she walks in on him in the shower, breaks up with his girlfriend after she misinterprets an insult meant for Alexander and fails his driving test after answering his phone, while Emily overdoses on cough syrup and — intoxicated — ruins the school play. Again, it’s nothing particularly shocking but thanks to director Miguel Arteta the escalation is perfectly natural and yet still suitably surprising. He’s just as successful at the sentimental stuff, and though there is inevitably a lesson to be learned in the end it’s actually pretty palatable. Nobody’s telling Alexander to be himself; he’s telling them to just suck it up.
How much of this is inherited from Judith Viorst’s book and how much is innovation on Disney’s behalf is difficult to say, but between them they have come up with a nice twist on the traditional “be careful what you wish for” yarn. More Diary of a Wimpy Kid than The Odd Life of Timothy Green, Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Title is in fact an entertaining, enjoyable, not bad, very good film.