Now, THIS is a family movie. In every sense of the word. Through thick and thin, up or down, heaven or hell, Miguel Arteta’s Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (hereafter referred to as simply Alexander) never strays from the simple tenet that your family is all you have, and that alone can get you through some pretty rough stuff. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that parents Ben (Steve Carell) and Kelly (Jennifer Garner) are affluent white folks with decent backgrounds and jobs, and they live in a great house, well away from the troubles of inner-city life.
True, Alexander lives its short 81-minute life dealing with what people today call “First World Problems,” a theme I previously touched on in my review of Hector and the Search for Happiness – where relatively good lives are “marred” by little things that pop up. The titular Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) seems to have more than his fair share of these problems, ranging from having gum stuck in his hair to having a popular boy having a just-announced birthday party at the same time and on the same date as Alexander’s party – and that’s just on the day we meet him. However, he’s surrounded by his family, all of whom, in his eyes, embody perfection and a relative ease at dealing with life’s curveballs.
Older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is a good-looking kid with a beautiful girlfriend, and older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) excels at everything, including being Peter Pan in the school production. Kelly is seen to work flawlessly, picking up his recently-laid off father’s slack and providing for the family, while Ben takes the stay-at-home route with baby brother Trevor (played by twins Elise and Zoey Vargas). Nothing seems to be going right with Alexander, which culminates in him making a Liar Liar-style birthday wish at midnight: he wants everyone in his family to have a bad day so they’ll know how he feels. And wouldn’t you just know it, the title says it all: it’s a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day for everyone.
I love comedic chaos in movies, and Alexander is chock-full of it. Lots of things spinning out of control + watching from a safe distance = oodles of fun for me. From the head on down, everyone’s day goes from bad to worse to “CAN IT GET ANY WORSE?!” to “You’d better get some long sleeves on, ‘cause it’s gonna hurt.”* Arteta’s deft comedic timing keeps the laughs rolling and the audience playfully cringing as each person’s biggest aspect of their self-worth gets turned against them., Lessons are learned by everyone in this movie, and Arteta manages to keep it away from going full-bore with the sap, balancing the sweet with the salty and the realistic. Vanity, self-obsession, pride, and corporate slavery are all given a sharp backhand here, suggesting that Alexander may actually be the only sane character in the whole bunch.
Gender roles also get a little bit of a slap here. We see Kelly being the main breadwinner for the family, and she’s given the chance to accept a bigger role in her company, albeit with the caveat that she’d be at her boss’ beck and call, never getting much of a chance to be with her kids. Also, to a lesser degree, we see sister Emily playing Peter Pan, a male role (it’s been played by women before, which is why it’s a “lesser degree”). But the biggest example of this is Ben and his role as a stay-at-home dad. Traditionally in films, we see this part fulfilled by mom, so much so that at one point in this film, Ben is called a “fommy” – a father playing both roles. This, to me, was the film’s only sin – that being called a “father” isn’t good enough and that we have to consider Ben’s role in the family as “playing mommy.” I’d like to think it was put there as an example of how gender stereotypes have given rise to this kind of cutesy political correctness, and how silly it eventually all can be.
No. Ben is a father to these children, and Kelly is a mother to these children, and they’re very good at it. They have their flaws and triumphs, and they share it with their kids as part of teaching them that life doesn’t always go your way, but as long as they’ve got each other, it’ll be all right. Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day is a raucous comedy that goes a yard and a mile to show that nothing’s ever perfect and to rejoice in those imperfections, along with the wisdom that you have to have the bad in order to enjoy the good. Stay tuned during the credits to hear “Best Worst Day Ever,” a pretty terrific pop song done by actor Kerris Dorsey and her sister Justine.
* – Christopher Titus, “Step Up,” from “The 5th Annual End of the World Tour”