One Crap Storm After Another: "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" surprises by being not bad

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day (2014) 
80 min., rated PG.

For anyone over the age of twelve, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" is actually better than the desperate, dumbed-down, frantically strained clown car of a farce those trailers make it out to be. It seemed like it would be in need of a chill pill or Ritalin, too, not unlike 2011's more-spastic-than-charming "Judy Moody and the NOT Bummer Summer," but that isn't the case. Based on the 1972 children's book by Judith Viorst, "Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" is actually pleasingly solid family entertainment that even makes some slightly subversive (or questionable) choices within the Disney banner to go with its accident-filled, "jumping from the frying pan into the fire" plot. If that's what a pleasant surprise sounds like, then we'll take it.

12-year-old Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) is not having the greatest day. He wakes up with gum in his hair, has photos of his face photoshopped onto muscular and bikini-clad bodies and passed around school, finds out everyone is going to the popular Philip Parker's lavish birthday party the same night as his, stumbles in front of his precocious crush Becky Gibson (Sidney Fullmer) for carpooling to school, and then nearly burns down the whole science lab. His former-space-station-engineer dad Ben (Steve Carell) has been unemployed for seven months, working at home as a "fommy" with baby Trevor (Elise and Zoey Vargas) whose only worry in life is having his bumblebee pacifier, but he's about to land an interview. Kelly (Jennifer Garner) wishes she could spend more time with the baby, but she's currently the stressful bread-winner as a children's publishing exec. Vain older brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) can't wait to take his driver's test and take narcissistic girlfriend Celia (Bella Thorne) to the junior prom, while sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey) is busy practicing for the lead in her school's 8th grade production of "Peter Pan." Everything seems to be going right for them until Alexander makes his birthday wish, and the day becomes cursed. Everything that could go awry does. 

Nicely written by Rob Lieber and zippily directed by Miguel Arteta (2011's "Cedar Rapids"), this family comedy is more likably slapstick-filled than one could have expected. For a 32-page book taken to the screen, the story doesn't feel so padded as one might have feared. Arteta paces it all very quickly without turning the film into a hectic headache, but instead an agreeably silly farce with heart and a lightness on the urination and vomit gags. The snowballing mishaps are pretty amusing and even relatable when they stray away from the requisite pratfalls, including a celebrity-reading-gone-wrong for Kelly with Dick Van Dyke reading her newly launched, misprint-ridden book. As for relatability, who hasn't woken up late for school or work? A dead car battery? What about getting a cold right before a big event? And, Alexander's choice country for a school research paper—Australia—turns out to not just be a random, tossed-off detail but actually a setup for a funny climax involving the Thunder From Down Under male revue. When the film simmers down, it's rather sweet instead of goopy with a warm, wise message that one needs to have the bad days to love the good days even more.

The casting of Aussie kid actor Ed Oxenbould was smart, making Alexander a normal, identifiable lead. Once his wish takes over, the rest of the cast playing his family takes over a bit. Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner are thankfully not asked to reduce their roles as loving, optimistic parents to mugging and preening, arms flailing around for 80 minutes. Carell is his affable self, finding himself in a pirate blouse, catching his sleeve on fire at a Japanese steakhouse, and chasing after a kangaroo hopping loose through the neighborhood. Garner is charming and game, barking out the window of their minivan at a slow driver, making an awkward line that she's seen every penis in her immediate family, and peddling like a maniac on a kid's bike. Dylan Minnette and Kerris Dorsey also sell their separate shenanigans, whether it be Anthony's driver's test with Jennifer Coolidge a hoot as the no-nonsense DMV instructor or a cold-suffering Emily downing a bottle of cough medicine before putting on the green tights and suspending all over the stage as an intoxicated Peter Pan.

Good-natured and amusing without being fall-down hilarious, "Alexander & the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day" will be eaten up by kids and might even invite parents to guffaw here and there. Belonging in the same sentence as the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies—this is a compliment but probably depends on whom you askthe film has timelessly valuable wisdom and a silly-sweet tone in creating temporary chaos that comes with a bad day to befall its protagonist and his family. Nobody will be hailing it as a hypnotic piece of work, but terrible, horrible and very bad, it is not. It will be hard to have a bad day after this harmlessly fun diversion.

Grade: B -