Author Judith Viorst certainly hit on something enduring with her 1972 children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.” The memorable bits start with that mouthful of a title, and continue on Page 1 with the tone-setting image of her beleaguered kid protagonist with gum stuck in his hair. Director Miguel Arteta’s feature adaptation with Steve Carell and Jennifer Garner hangs onto the name and the Juicy Fruit mishap, at least, along with Alexander’s quirky Australia fixation. Beyond that, the movie has to broaden the story — understandably, really — to hit even its brisk hour-and-change running time. What the filmmakers come up with is a modestly likable mix of zany and gently warmhearted, even if they overdo both elements at times.
Newcomer Ed Oxenbould ages Alexander upward by a few years, playing him as a lisping, meekly dorky middle schooler who’d be right at home in a “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” installment. (Viorst’s Alexander makes a yuck face at seeing kissing on TV; Oxenbould’s version has a crush.) Alexander is in some kind of mood after his imminent birthday plans are upstaged by a cooler kid’s party announcement — the capper to a day in which he’s also involved in a klutzy science-class catastrophe and other sooo-awkward indignities. The last thing he needs to hear is dinner table conversation about how swell things are looking at work, home, and play for the rest of his family: his downsized-but-copacetic dad, Ben (Carell); his career-juggling mom, Kelly (Garner); and his more confident older sibs, Anthony (Dylan Minnette) and Emily (Kerris Dorsey).
It’s enough to make a kid wish that just once, they could all have a day like he always seems to have, and understand how it feels. In other words, it’s major departure time for this version of the story, as all manner of complications magically ensue for the entire family. Ben, who’s been playing primary caregiver to Alexander’s baby brother, has to bring the toddler along on a disastrous job interview — material straight out of the “Mr. Mom” manual, but amusingly, freshly updated by Carell. (His star wattage makes us forget this is supposed to be Alexander’s story.) Anthony’s road test for his driver’s license with a DMV sourpuss (Jennifer Coolidge) goes slightly, um, off course. And on and on it goes, to the point that Arteta (“Youth in Revolt”) occasionally hits us with a familiar TV sitcom problem: too much excruciating “sit,” not quite enough LOL “com.”
Meanwhile, the film’s messages about not sweating the small stuff could also be handled with a somewhat lighter touch, sweet-natured though they are. We’d be OK with seeing Carell’s impossibly Zen “fommy” character kick more trash cans in frustration, and not just let loose on one after he watches his career go up in flames, literally. Everyone understands that a bad day can have that effect sometimes, never mind a terrible, horrible one.