Miguel Arteta has made a couple of pretty good films in a career mostly devoted to TV — The Good Girl (2002) and Cedar Rapids (2011). His latest, on the other hand, is pretty bad and out of character. This is Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day — or, as I like to think of it, The Persecution and Assassination of Alexander as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum at Disney Under the Direction of Someone Who Should Know Better. Unfortunately, turning the title into a variant on Marat/Sade doesn’t do anything to help this shrill, broad, unfunny, tedious, badly-paced movie. Plus, the main character is never assassinated, but then this is of the family-friendly stripe (see the PG rating). It’s based on the “beloved” children’s book of the same name, but I have serious doubts that the book includes a sequence where Alexander’s sister gets accidentally trashed on liquid cold medicine, or one where dad mistakenly hires a group of male strippers for Alexander’s 11th birthday party. (Of course, the book probably doesn’t have a wallaby and a kangaroo, which are plusses, but marsupial value only takes you so far.) Then again, what do I know about modern pre-tween kid literature?
The idea here is that Alexander Cooper (Australian TV kid actor Ed Oxenbould) is seemingly the only member of his family who doesn’t live a charmed life. Out-of-work Dad (Steve Carell) is so relentlessly cheerful and upbeat that he would be drug tested if he was a racehorse. Gainfully-employed Mom (Jennifer Garner) is no less perky. Big sister Emily (TV actress Kerris Dorsey) is the well-liked rising star of the eighth-grade drama department. Bigger brother Anthony (TV actor Dylan Minnette) is the smoothest (PG-style) operator of the junior class at high school — complete with hot (but terminally shallow) girlfriend (TV actress Bella Thorne). There’s also a baby brother (played by two baby girls) who, of course, gets all the parental doting. Alexander, however, is a social disaster at school, the butt of every joke imaginable. At home, he’s merely clumsy and overlooked. In short, he’s completely miserable. So, just as he turns 11 he makes a wish that his family could find out what it’s like to have a bad day. And guess what? Quicker than you can say Freaky Friday his wish comes true.
What happens from there is pretty easy to predict, and even easier to forget before you’re out of the theater. It’s all strained, obvious slapstick played at full volume by an overly energetic cast trying way too hard to sell the movie’s weak gags. (This is by no means the first or the worst movie to fall into the trap of confusing loud with funny, but it’s a good example.) Before it’s over, of course, everything will be set to rights and life lessons will be learned. The nice people will be rewarded. The not-so-nice will be punished. Better still, Alexander will not realize that the only reason people — including the girl he’s sweet on and his supposed best friend — showed up for his awesome birthday party is because his cool-kid nemesis got sick and had to cancel his party. That’s perhaps a life lesson for a slightly older age group. Rated PG for rude humor, including some reckless behavior and language.