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Review: 'Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day' goes OK

The belated adaptation of Judith Fiorst's 1972 children's lit classic tacks on an entire different story, and turns things way too sunny and bouncy.

Ed Oxenbould and Steve Carell (in pirate shirt) star in the "Alexander" movie with a very long title. Credit: Dale Robinette Ed Oxenbould and Steve Carell (in pirate shirt) star in the "Alexander" movie with a very long title.
Credit: Dale Robinette

‘Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day’
Director: Miguel Arteta
Stars: Ed Oxenbould, Steve Carell
Rating: PG
3 (out of 5) Globes

Judith Viorst’s 1972 children’s favorite, whose long title begins with the name “Alexander,” runs a swift, gloomy 32 pages. The perhaps belated film version goes on for a still pretty short 75, plus end credits. But it’s not a Stretch Armstrong deal, desperately inflating a slender tale past its breaking point. It stays faithful (more or less), then comes up with a clever, movie-friendly way that reimagines — and, one could argue, basically betrays, but in a good way — the source.

The book itself fills out the first act. Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) is a semi-depressive 12-year-old who wakes up with gum in his hair and stumbles as he gets out of bed. His day doesn’t get any better but in fact worse: It's one humiliation, both minor and OTT, piling up, one on top of another. His family — led by dad (Steve Carell) and mom (Jennifer Garner) — don’t seem to notice his foul mood. And so, feeling ignored and alone, he wishes they too would have a bad day. So they do. Rather than pick monotonously on one poor guy, the film spreads the misery around, having prom-bound bro get a zit, Broadway-bound sis a cold and mom a PR disaster by accidentally humiliating random guest star Dick Van Dyke. (Seriously, this is like Mad Libs.)

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Movies handle Murphy’s Law nightmares well, even ones that aren’t totally inspired, as here. Director Miguel Arteta (“The Good Girl,” “Youth in Revolt”) stages the so-so embarrassments with speed and efficiency. He also brings a light-hearted, bouncy tone. In fact it's light and bouncy; this is the sunniest movie about unhappiness ever made. Viorst’s book was a mordant downer that playfully warned kids that life sucks. This is an upbeat movie about a family coming together against the fates (or the screenwriters). The need to put a positive spin on a relatively bleak book means the calamities stop around the third act, and you’re mostly watching good things working out for good people. It's a boring way to end an action-packed romp.

It can be charming, though. Oxenbould has sharp timing and the enjoyable weariness of someone about seven years older than him. And his character’s random jones for all things Australian has amazingly made it through every stage of this Disney production. (More films need gratuitous shout-outs to vegemite.) For what is, at heart, a total bastardization of a children’s classic, it’s surprisingly sturdy — until it isn’t and you question the quality of what came before.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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