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Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Sarah Ward

Showing family life with affection and understanding, this adaptation of the popular children's book is irreverent and astute.
Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

It’s not like a fun and funny family-friendly effort to embrace the messiness of busy modern lives, but that’s what Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day does. The film not only adapts Judith Viorst’s best-selling book of the same name, but updates it, adding traces of times beyond its original 1972 publishing run. The tale’s titular protagonist is obviously unhappy, as the moniker also intimates, with everything failing to go his way over the course of an eventful twenty-four hours. And yet, just as pandemonium dictates the unfortunate series of instances that occur, so does their fleeting nature; as the cliché goes, tomorrow is another day.

Anything that could come after his twelfth birthday is far from Alexander’s (Ed Oxenbould, Paper Planes) mind. He just wants to survive what amounts to be an occasion to remember for all the wrong reasons. After a trying day prior, in which he wakes up with gum in his hair and struggles with a series of small crises – spanning a rival birthday party, spurned advances from the girl he likes, and general family craziness – has set his nerves on edge. Then he greets his new age, but nothing improves.

Instead, doom and gloom surrounds the Cooper family from the moment they wake. His mother, Kelly (Jennifer Garner, Men, Women and Children), has trouble with a book launch. His father, Ben (Steve Carrell, Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues), seemingly flunks an important job interview. His older brother, Anthony (Dylan Minnette, Labor Day), experiences difficulties with his girlfriend and his driving test. His sister, Emily (Kerris Dorsey, TV’s Ray Donovan), is supposed to star in the school play but is stricken with a cold. And no one really cares that it is Alexander’s birthday. 

All of the issues that arise are little, but their impact is big – in their given moment, that is. The film’s overall message of not sweating the small stuff might seem clichéd; however that it comes after accepting the stressful hustle and bustle that can make an ordinary day seem like a nightmare ensures that it is affection and understanding, not happy pandering, that triumphs. Convention may be leaned on a little too heavily in broad characterisations, flitting from the working mum trying to have it all to the popular teen coming around to the value of substance over superficial pursuits, but none are played as stereotypes. Everyone has their problems and everyone gets their moment, with spirited performances – particularly from the delightful Oxenbould – assisting in providing humour and heart beyond the hijinks.

So it is that the slapstick encounters snowball in interconnected vignettes of daily domesticity, as does the irreverence that attempts to find laughs in the spate of bad luck. Under the direction of seasoned journeyman Miguel Arteta (Cedar Rapids), and using a script by first-timer Rob Lieber, the feature simply relishes the recognisable reality of its story, the magic of its rendering, and its ultimately feel-good intentions. As filmed with a sleek gaze and a sense of energy, and set to a pop soundtrack, it moves briskly from one development to the next; the pessimistic hero may wallow, but the economical, 81-minute feature doesn’t allow itself that luxury. Nothing is covered in depth in the coming-of-age and coming-of-chaos effort, yet nothing is dismissed as too trivial, either. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day turns the routine into the amusing – as well as the astutely observed.

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day
Director: Miguel Arteta
US, 2014, 81 mins

Release date: December 4
Distributor: Disney

Rated: PG

About the author

Sarah Ward is a freelance film critic, arts and culture writer, and film festival organiser. She is the Australia-based critic for Screen International, a film reviewer and writer for ArtsHub, the weekend editor and a senior writer for Concrete Playground, a writer for the Goethe-Institut Australien’s Kino in Oz, and a contributor to SBS, SBS Movies and Flicks Australia. Her work has been published by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Junkee, FilmInk, Birth.Movies.Death, Lumina, Senses of Cinema, Broadsheet, Televised Revolution, Metro Magazine, Screen Education and the World Film Locations book series. She is also the editor of Trespass Magazine, a film and TV critic for ABC radio Brisbane, Gold Coast and Sunshine Coast, and has worked with the Brisbane International Film Festival, Queensland Film Festival, Sydney Underground Film Festival and Melbourne International Film Festival. Follow her on Twitter: @swardplay