Director: Miguel Arteta
Cast: Steve Carell, Jennifer Garner, Ed Oxenbould, Kerris Dorsey, Dylan Minnette
Running time: 81 min
Release: 24th October
Childhood is filled with moments of alienation deeply felt. Constant surveillance and total powerlessness breed self-pity; no wonder my inner child is a jerk. In the best art made for children – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Where The Wild Things Are to The Nightmare Before Christmas – this feeling has a greater significance than whatever joy or comfort family brings. Alice leaps down the rabbit hole without giving her boring sister a second thought, indeed “never once considering how in the world she might get out again.” And parents often die in Disney films, don’t they. In the 1973 picture book by Judith Viorst on which this film is based, only the hero is drawn in colour; everyone else is cross-hatched in dull grey. Alexander is grumpy, lonely and not so much misunderstood as ignored. He’s also self-centred and whiny, and if he’s having a no-good terrible day it’s mostly his own fault. The reader isn’t being looked down upon. Alexander the film, despite being raucous, knowing fun, is a great deal more patronising.
For much of the film, Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould) has an OK day. It’s his 12th birthday, and, after blowing out the candle on his birthday cake, Alexander wishes that, just once, his happy-go-lucky family would experience the sort of horrible day that he’s used to. The Coopers are a positive bunch – it’s a bit of a family romance, actually. Alexander even mistakes his brother’s nighttime coos to his girlfriend for expressions of filial affection, making for one of the film’s rare tonal lapses. Everyone’s got a big day coming up – Dad’s (Steve Carrell) job interview, sister Emily’s (Kerris Dorsey) school play, brother Anthony’s (Dylan Minnette) driving test and prom night. Mom (Jennifer Garner), a publisher of kids’ books, even has an appointment with Dick Van Dyke, for God’s sake. So it’s all set up; we’re strapped into the rollercoaster, about to speed along a classic redemptive arc, with a whole amusement park’s worth of pratfalls spread out beneath us. The film is very well-structured, with the family moving from setpiece to disastrous setpiece at a clip and the spoonfuls of Disney saccharine merely occasional. The script is sharp and smart and the incidental characters get all the best lines.
Still, Alexander patronises, insults, even. It’s not usual for a child to be so beloved, or for parents to be so patient and stoic in the face of terrible, horrible disasters. And, worst of all, the film goes to great lengths to impress upon us just how unusual it is for a father to be unemployed and to stay at home with his children. Steve Carrell as house-husband (execrable phrase employed for effect) is an overweight, emasculated, buffoonish half-man, passive and likeably meek until he can re-enter the workforce and become aggressively alpha again. Dad remaining unemployed would be the worst bad horrible terrible thing to happen of all. Getting Dad a job eventually becomes the plot’s prime motivator, and the film is all the worse for it.