Friday, October 10, 2014

Day 319: Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

"I told you this day was cursed."
Adapting a book is always a daunting task for any filmmaker. The task of deciding what to keep and what to jettison can lead to everything from inspired improvements on the text to outrage from fans of the book. Adapting a slim book, or one with little to no filmic qualities, presents an entirely different set of challenges such as what to flesh out and what elements crucial to the book's success are going to be crucial to the film's success. When an adaptation of the beloved children's classic Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day was announced with The Kids Are All Right director Lisa Cholodenko behind the camera, things seemed promising.  When Cholodenko left the project early last year and was replaced by Cedar Rapids director Miguel Arteta, lots of question marks loomed, namely would his subversive tendencies be stifled by a Disney film?
The Cooper family leads a life of hopeless optimism, led by the unflagging positivity of patriarch Ben (Steve Carell). Despite being unemployed for several months, Ben never fails to see the bright side, and that attitude carries over to nearly every member of the family from his wife Kelly (Jennifer Garner), oldest son Anthony (Dylan Minnette), only daughter Emily (Kerris Dorsey), and infant child Trevor. In fact, the only member of the clan that fails to see the good in anything is middle child Alexander (Ed Oxenbould). On the eve of his 12th birthday, Alexander discovers that the coolest kid in school is planning to have his birthday party on the same night as Alexander, causing all of his friends to change their plans, and he makes a fool of himself in front of Becky (Sidney Fullmer), the girl he likes.
When his family fails to be a support system for Alexander, he makes a birthday wish that just once, his family would have a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. The next morning, literally everything that can go wrong for the family does go wrong, leaving Alexander to believe that he's cursed his family. Ben is on the verge of blowing a big job interview; Kelly continually screws up her opportunities for a promotion at work; Anthony's girlfriend (Bella Thorne) breaks up with him despite the prom being that night; and Emily has a cold that may prevent her from performing the role of Peter Pan in the school play. Alexander is now forced to help his family see that the bad days will only make them appreciate the good ones even more.
Clocking in at just a shade over 80 minutes, the best thing about the film is its breakneck pace that makes it actually feel even shorter. The film doesn't stop for a minute, which is both its best asset and biggest weakness. It seems almost deliberately designed to move so quickly to its next beat that you never have a moment to stop and think about how thin its premise actually is. It's not a bad film, and would have been an even more interesting film had it not bore the moniker of a very famous and beloved book, but having assumed the mantle it did, it's more of a curiosity than an unqualified success. There are a bunch of inspired moments, including an hysterically funny cameo by Dick Van Dyke and a bit at the end involving some Australian "cowboys," but it's sadly not as good as the sum of its parts.
The biggest problem with the film by a mile, is the imprint of the Walt Disney Corporation all over it. From Alexander's Darth Vader shirt, to the prominent placement of several songs from Peter Pan, to the fact that Dick Van Dyke is even referred to as Bert, it reeks of being a product more than a film. When a film is well-paced and entertaining, things like this shouldn't stand out, but the fact that all the action seems to stop in order to shill for Disney feels really disingenuous. It's also odd to find moments from the book thrown out, such as the disastrous trip to the shoe store, making it feel more inspired by the book than based on it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing, just call the film something else. It reminded me of The Lorax, which became so consumed with its own additions that they condensed several pages of the book down to a single montage.
The film features a ton of talented people in front of the camera, which does help to distract from its issues. Carell is as good as he almost always is, never making it feel like he's phoning it in, which he probably was. The Cooper kids are all very good as well, with Ed Oxenbould making for a particularly good protagonist. There are also some strong cameos from Megan Mullally, Donald Glover, Burn Gorman, and of course the aforementioned Van Dyke. With so much capable comedic talent, it's no wonder the film works as well as it does, it's just a real shame that the material didn't rise to the level of the talent involved.
As a director, Arteta has never really been one for visual flair, with Youth in Revolt being the one exception that proves the rule, but he does admirable work here. Considering he was basically a director for hire having to deal with the demands of an overbearing studio, it's hard to imagine anyone could have turned this into a great film. The screenplay by first time screenwriter Rob Lieber is a mishmash of inspired gags and grating cliches, and it's hard to know if the film's structure came from the screenplay or took shape in the editing room. Either way, it's a decent enough effort by all involved, but nothing that rises above being mildly entertaining.
If you have kids in the 8-12 range, this film will succeed wildly with them in much the same way the Diary of a Wimpy Kid films did. However, if your nostalgia for the book is bringing you to the theater, you're only going to be disappointed by what you find. I feel like a broken record at this point, but it's hard for a film that's so wholly inoffensive to be anything other than a decent time waster. The real shame is that no one involved seemed to be aiming any higher than that, and when that's your goal, it doesn't take much effort to succeed.
GO Rating: 2.5/5

[Photos via Rotten Tomatoes]

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