An average American family becomes a giant human pinata in “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” a passable, tolerable, not unbearable, totally inoffensive adaptation of Judith Viorst’s beloved 1972 children’s book. Made to exacting Disney specifications, this is the sort of busily contrived, one-damned-thing-after-another farce where cars are smashed and Dad gets set on fire, but it all goes down with a spoonful of sugar and a cheery string of studio tie-ins — it’s PG-rated sadism with a smile. With Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner on hand to enliven the proceedings, the comedy at least zips along fast enough to wind up feeling almost shorter than its famous title, which could spark enough recognition among tots and parents to steal a decent-sized portion of the all-ages pie.
“I think I’ll move to Australia,” Alexander noted after the first of several groan-worthy setbacks in Viorst’s book, and screenwriter Rob Lieber has honored that detail by turning his 12-year-old protagonist (played by Aussie actor Ed Oxenbould) into a full-blown Oz enthusiast, while later integrating a few well-trained marsupials into the otherwise all-human ensemble. Indeed, one of the major blows Alexander Cooper suffers over the course of his terrible, horrible, etc. day is that he misses his chance to do a school report on his favorite continent. He also wakes up with bubble gum in his hair, becomes a social-media laughingstock (kids these days), and learns that his preadolescent crush (Sidney Fullmer) and his best friend (Mekai Matthew Curtis) are ditching his upcoming birthday party.
Clearly recognizing that a straightforward adaptation would yield barely enough material for a short (like HBO’s half-hour 1990 animated version), Lieber and director Miguel Arteta shift the focus onto the boy’s parents and siblings, all of whom seem to be enjoying life much more than he is. Mopey and resentful, Alexander unwittingly brings a curse down upon his family, sending the movie swerving abruptly into semi-supernatural “Freaky Friday” territory.
And so, thanks to a fateful alarm-clock malfunction, Alexander’s mom, Kelly (Garner), is late for a major work engagement that involves a book reading by Dick Van Dyke (Disney tie-in No. 1), while his out-of-work engineer dad, Ben (Carell), has to rush to a job interview with their screaming infant son in tow. Talented older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) wakes up with a cold that will make it much harder for her to play Peter Pan in the school musical that afternoon (Disney tie-in No. 2). Meanwhile, big brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) must battle a giant forehead zit and numerous episodes of relational angst with Celia (Bella Thorne), his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad girlfriend.
Various crises ensue: Dangerous levels of cough syrup and permanent ink are ingested, and copious amounts of snot, vomit and urine are discharged. Before long, the Coopers are facing several thousand dollars’ worth of property damage and future therapy bills, as well as grim expressions of disapproval from numerous authority figures, including Mom’s ultra-demanding boss (Megan Mullally), Emily’s snippy drama teacher (Burn Gorman), and Anthony’s driving-test administrator (Jennifer Coolidge, onscreen far too briefly).
Arteta, whose accessible indie sensibility has pushed closer to the mainstream over the years (his prior feature was 2011’s “Cedar Rapids”), puts his actors through their paces with smooth, uninspired professionalism. Nearly every major disaster can be spotted coming a mile away, and not just because the movie opens — in that pointless way that so many movies do nowadays — at the end of the story rather than the beginning. Things move briskly enough that kids and parents won’t feel too beleaguered by the end of the 81-minute running time, though not so briskly that adults won’t pick up on some of the clumsier implausibilities in the script. (Why would a school schedule a prom and a musical at the same time of year, let alone on the same day?)
One of the charms of the original book was that it just allowed stuff to happen, rather than turning life into a series of carefully premeditated Rube Goldberg torture scenarios. Even better, Viorst didn’t feel the need to lift Alexander’s spirits, recognizing that bad moods come and go, and most kids just need time and space to recover. Omitting that sort of pushy uplift here, of course, would be as unthinkable as leaving out the Disney logo, and the final reels come packed with optimistic life lessons (“You don’t always have to steer your ship with positivity!”), restoring an atmosphere of forced cheer en route to an unreservedly happy ending.
Oxenbould is appealing enough in the role of a kid who winds up somewhat sidelined by his own movie, while Minnette and Dorsey offer solid backup as the older sibs. Wisely, the pic cedes plenty of screen time to Garner and Carell, who tuck into their mom and dad roles with practiced skill, finding nice if predictably contrasting rhythms (she’s tough and high-strung, he’s goofy and laidback). Production designer Michael Corenblith’s sets look good even though they wind up taking a lot of punishment, and the soundtrack includes an original tune, “Best Worst Day Ever” (written and performed by Dorsey and her singer-songwriter sister, Justine), happily supplanting the more obvious choice of Daniel Powter’s “Bad Day.”