Proceeding from the reasonable premise that the only thing more constantly in need of maintenance and repair than a home is the family within it, Miguel Arteta's Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day puts the Coopers to the test by making their neglected 12-year-old's birthday wish – that everyone could have a day as awful as his – come true.
Like most of us, the Coopers – father Ben (Steve Carell), mom Kelly (Jennifer Garner), sister Emily (Kerris Dorsey), brother Anthony (Dylan Minnette) and baby Trevor – are harried. Ben's been surplused from his advertising job and spends his days playing Trevor's "Fommy" (father mommy); Kelly's struggling to hold on to her publishing gig; Emily's determined to launch an acting career in the school production of Peter Pan; and Anthony's prepping for his prom night with the school uber-hottie Celia (Bella Thorne). Meanwhile, Alexander's life is prepubescently pear-shaped and nobody's got the time to notice. Ergo, that birthday wish.
In its scene-setting stages, Arteta's movie effectively gets us inside poor Alexander's head, as a stubbornly uncooperative suburban universe conspires to make everything in his daily life an epic ordeal, the destruction of the school's science lab – perpetrated in the name of impressing the unattainably cute crush object Becky (Sidney Fullmer) – being only the most catastrophic of events. Alexander narrates with a rueful, put-upon worldly wisdom that instantly enlists our sympathy, and the young actor Ed Oxenbould may be the most appealing junior loser we've seen since Peter Billingsley wished for an air rifle in A Christmas Story.
But once that wish is made, and the movie, which is based on Judith Viorst's book, shifts its attention to the havoc all the other Coopers endure over the course of the day, a curious thing happens. Although much of the ensuing chaos is staged with a cumulative comic momentum that keeps all balls rolling and evokes a live-action cartoon, Alexander is once again sidelined and left behind: Even in his own movie, he's largely left out of the loopiness.
While that may put a damper on our emotional investment in the poor kid, it doesn't prevent Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day from gathering its own comic momentum and depicting the harrowingly thin line between domestic stability and utter anarchy, the very line so many of us tread from the instant the alarm clock calls us back to active duty. This is where the comedy comes from: that lurking fear that even the most routine of daily domestic tasks is just a spilled coffee cup away from disaster.
But where the movie finds its heart – and Alexander again – is in the family-friendly sentimental suggestion that anything can be endured, and all disaster recovered from, provided the core unit is solid and everybody loves one another enough. This is the lesson we take from Alexander's act of selfish cosmic retribution, and it's a heartwarmer to be sure. Even the boy himself stands to learn from it, at least until he sees the movie and realizes he's been upstaged by his own kinfolk once again.