A Family Movie in Which Nothing is as Bad as It Seems (and That’s Not Necessarily Good)
DIRECTOR: PETER HEDGES/2014
There is a reason Judith Viorst’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” is a classic of children’s literature: it’s a deeply insightful and empathetic glimpse into childhood. In “Alexander”, Viorst recognized that children, like adults, sometimes have unrelentingly awful days. Like adults, children sometimes feel alone in their suffering. The humiliations and injustices that they endure can seem almost unbearable, and the adults who surround them don’t always understand that these things matter. The Alexander of the picture book has a bad day from the moment he wakes up with gum in his hair to the moment he falls asleep alone (his cat having chosen to sleep with a sibling), wearing pajamas that he hates. Because sometimes life is like that, whether you are a child or an adult.
As I said, the book is a classic precisely because of it’s unflinching (and yet still humorous) look at childhood pain and frustration. The new Disney movie shares the name of the book and small details, but the theme of the book has been not only altered but completely undermined. In talking about the movie it’s best to recognize right up front how very, very different it is from the beloved book. This is not that.
The movie sprinkles some pixie dust of its own by having Alexander make a birthday wish that his family could understand what it’s like to have a bad day – and, boy, do they!
Sigh. And now I acknowledge that the 9 year old sitting next to me loved the movie. She laughed in all the right places, and she went home happy. She will surely recommend Alexander to her friends – and I assume that’s what the Disney studio is looking for. The screen version of Alexander (Ed Oxenbould) is older – on the verge of his 12th birthday – and feeling like the overlooked loser in his upbeat family. His mom (Jennifer Garner) is up for a promotion, Dad (Steve Carrel) has an exciting job interview, big brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) is prepping for his driver’s license and prom, and older sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) has the lead in the school production of “Peter Pan”.
The movie sprinkles some pixie dust of its own by having Alexander make a birthday wish that his family could understand what it’s like to have a bad day – and, boy, do they! Alexander’s birthday turns out to be a day of nearly constant disaster, from the relatively small (juice spills in the kitchen) to the enormous (just know that the job interview, the driver’s test and “Peter Pan” will not go smoothly). This allows ample opportunity for physical comedy, and Steve Carrel’s skills are put to good use here. Jennifer Garner plays exasperation, anxiety and sincerity well – all in evidence here – but seems out of her depth in the broader silliness. A scene of her trying to save a children’s book reading from public scandal is a low point in the movie, and carries a cliche I find particularly annoying: one full sentence spoken to security at the bookstore and this particular disaster never would have happened. But the plot requires this humiliation, and so a woman who (we are to believe) is an accomplished professional stands by acting frantic and helpless.
My chief complaint with Alexander is not with any plot point or performance, however. It’s with the extravagantly happy ending. Judith Viorst’s Alexander is a boy alone in his frustrations and grievances, and nothing but the hope of a better day tomorrow comes along to relieve them. The Alexander of the movie gets to bond with his family through all their problems and everything turns out marvelously – better than any real world family could hope for. You can bet your bottom dollar that the birthday party Alexander spends half the movie fretting about will turn out to be the best. party. ever. Because this is Disney, folks, and that’s what they market to children: wish fulfillment.
If you want a movie based on a children’s book that communicates how hard childhood can be sometimes, how isolating and confusing and painful, go find a DVD of Where the Wild Things Are. Alexander is the usual children’s fare: a decent cast, lots of pratfalls and goofiness, some cute animals thrown in for good measure, and no lasting negative consequences to anything that happens. Life tied up neatly with a birthday bow, whether that’s how life really works or not. Maybe that’s what we’re often looking for in our movies, whether we’re children or adults.