I am not trying to promote my forthcoming John Hughes biography but a new Disney film, “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day,” shows how agile the late screenwriter was in constructing antic family comedies.
It shows, in other words, how not very good many of his extremely slapsticky and schmaltzy ideas might have turned out in less capable hands.
Not that “Alexander” is a terrible, horrible film. It isn’t and should delight younger family members while older ones can tolerate this 82-minute journey into mayhem without too many bathroom breaks.
But the comedy doesn’t build its laughs structurally; the movie merely piles on pratfalls and slapstick in an incessant pattern. It doesn’t built characters through opportunities for behavioral choices but rather subjects them to improbable events seldom of their own making.
It’s the one darn-thing-after-another school of screenwriting as opposed to sharp story construction that builds tension and hones in on character.
What may have tied the hands of screenwriter Rob Lieber is that he was being guided by Judith Viorst’s 32-page children’s book published 42 years ago.
Lieber’s way around all the physical and emotion injuries suffered by one little boy (reportedly based the author’s youngest son) in a single day is to spread this misfortune among his entire family for two days. Not much of an improvement and not much of a premise for a movie either.
Anyway fine adult actors, Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner, are around to professionally take the brunt of much of the calamities while a game cast of youngsters learn the many ways to act bewildered or infuriated at misfortunate.
This begins with 11-year-old Alex (Australian Ed Oxenbould who’s made into an Aussie-centric American boy just so he feels at home). A miserable day at school, for which he gets no commiseration from his family, sees him wish on the eve of his birthday that everyone else in the family can suffer a similar day.
As the title indicates, he gets his wish.
From oversleeping the next morning — a John Hughes ploy right out of the “Home Alone” playbook — the family dashes headlong into a series of mini-disasters from dead car batteries to baby shenanigans and blown career opportunities.
These events are not only unlikely but veer toward the mundane. A dead car battery?
Besides if the unemployed husband can’t find a babysitter for a job interview the average viewer would undoubtedly wonder: Why not reschedule? Who takes an infant to a job interview?
And why is it so vital that the elder son (Dylan Minnette) take a driver’s test that day simply so he can drive his already impossible girlfriend to the junior prom? If he wants to impress her, why not hire a limo?
About the only calamity that shows signs of comic life is a celebrity book reading event that goes awry for Garner’s marketing maven due to a fatal misprint in the book. The kicker is that an unbilled Dick Van Dyke is the celebrity reader and he has fun with the meaning-changing typo.
Even here it’s hard to see why this is a career-breaker: How is this typo a marketing person’s fault? All books these days get printed in China. Blame the Chinese!
Kerris Dorsey has a nice wild moment swinging over a stage in a school production of “Peter Pan” while looped on cold syrup. And infants Elise and Zoey Vargas, alternatively playing the family’s baby, can be counted on to eat inappropriate things and pee at inappropriate times and places.
The film’s director Miguel Arteta works a lot so you can’t blame him for taking a studio assignment. However, this is the guy behind such fine indie films as “Star Maps,” “Chuck and Buck,” “Cedar Rapids” and “The Good Girl.” His talents are truly, truly wasted on such mediocre fluff.
Opens: October 10, 2014 (Walt Disney Studios)
Production companies: 21 Laps, Jim Henson Company
Cast: Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Ed Oxenbould, Dylan Minnette, Kerris Dorsey, Jennifer Coolidge, Megan Mullally, Bella Thorne, Mary Mouser, Sidney Fullmer, Ben Greene, Elise Vargas, Zoey Vargas
Director: Miguel Arteta
Screenwriter: Rob Lieber
Based on the book by: Judith Viorst
Producers: Shawn Levy, Dan Levine, Lisa Henson
Executive producers: Philip Steuer, Jason Lust
Director of photography: Terry Stacey
Production designer: Michael Corenblith
Music: Christophe Beck
Costume designer: Nancy Steiner
Editor: Pamela Martin
PG rating, 82 minutes