I found myself thinking a lot about “Sixteen Candles” while watching “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” Both movies, after all, feature an underappreciated protagonist celebrating a birthday (in this case, Aussie actor Ed Oxenbould in the title role), a sister hopped up on meds, a snooty prom queen, vehicular mischief, and parents who — when all is said and done — love their kids even if they get lost in the craziness of day-to-day minutiae.
What’s missing from “Alexander” is the craziness; we understand that a live-action Disney comedy is going to be blandly wholesome and tucked away in the cozy Toluca Lake cul-de-sacs that have provided the studio’s locations since the days of “Flubber.” But for a comedy set around one epic catastrophe of a rotten day, this wisp of a farce feels strangely chaos-deficient.
Based on Judith Viorst’s popular children’s book (and adapted to the screen by first-timer Rob Lieber), the film opens with young Alexander having a crummy time of it: a popular classmate is planning to host a rival 12th birthday party the following day, thus ensuring that no one will attend Alexander’s. Our hero is also the victim of vindictive photo texts, he gets gum in his hair, his teacher assigns someone else Australia for a geography project (even though Alexander is totally into that country), and he accidentally lights a pretty girl’s science notes with a Bunsen burner.
Making matters worse is the fact that the rest of his family all seem to be living charmed lives: sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey, “Ray Donovan”) is about to play Peter Pan in the school play; handsome and vain Anthony (Dylan Minnette, “Prisoners”) is a day away from getting his driver’s license and being crowned Prom Duke alongside his demanding girlfriend Celia (Bella Thorne); mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner) is set to get a big promotion at work; and dad Ben (Steve Carell) just got a job interview seven months after losing his gig in the aerospace industry.
Wishing on a birthday candle just after midnight, Alexander desires to have his family find out what it’s like to have a rotten day. And they do, with calamities that include ill-timed phone calls, cough syrup abuse, pirate blouses, and Alexander’s infant brother Trevor (played by female twins Elise and Zoey Vargas) developing a taste for highlighter ink.
These incidents of relative lunacy are couched in comedy-killing pauses in which the parents and siblings talk each other off the ledge, providing each other encouragement and strengthening their family bonds. Sure, you want to build up to that sort of thing, but director Miguel Arteta (operating about as far away from his breakout film “Chuck and Buck” as he possibly could) never lets the proceedings get wild and crazy enough for the kind of comedy of disaster and discomfort that “Alexander” should rightfully be.
It’s funny when a zonked-out Emily, in her flying harness, destroys the second-worst production of “Peter Pan” in history, but in the next scene everyone gets to regroup before the next calamity happens. Even the catastrophes themselves seem fairly weak: Anthony gets a blemish and a powder-blue tux on prom day, but the character is so strikingly handsome that neither feels like a deal breaker.
(The film’s best disaster befalls Kelly in a sequence involving Dick Van Dyke, playing himself, and an unfortunate misspelling in a potty-training picture book for kids.)
There’s nothing despicable (or terrible or horrible) about “Alexander” — any movie that finds room for Jennifer Coolidge as a tough-as-nails DMV tester can’t be all bad — but it’s a disappointingly inert comedy. These characters should have to suffer twice as many embarrassments if they want to earn all those adjectives in the title.