There’s a lesser heralded counterpart to the concept of schadenfreude, the mindset that takes pleasure in observing others’ pain. The inverse and, arguably, even more sociopathic corollary is glücksschmerz, the inability to share in others’ pleasure. Poor Alexander Cooper, the perpetual loser at the center of Disney’s new adaptation of the splendidly malcontented kids’ book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, volleys between the two extremes on the eve of his 12th birthday. On one hand, his predicament could be taken as a drastically unsentimental tweener metaphor for the cluster of feelings that come with the arrival of adolescence. But on the other, it could just be an excuse to stage comic chaos to the delight of an audience that feels neither joy nor pain, but simply stimuli.
Judith Viorst’s book exudes a beautiful commitment to the subjectivity of Alexander’s epically rotten series of unfortunate events. Refraining from kidsplaining things, it doesn’t rationalize the insurmountable bad luck experienced by its protagonist, instead letting readers decide for themselves (more or less) whether Alexander is a victim of circumstance or of his own sour outlook. Played by Ed Oxenbould, the film’s Alexander Cooper is no pouting cypher. He’s more of an enduring black sheep in a family of chipper overachievers, including Steve Carell as a stay-at-home “fommy” (father mommy) who keeps a perma-smile on his face with no apparent prescription, Jennifer Garner as a non-threateningly reluctant career woman on the rise, and other Disney-contracted youths as Alexander’s life-winning siblings and friends, none of whom are apparently planning on attending his backyard birthday party. Coasting on self-pity, Alexander scoops himself up a midnight birthday sundae, makes a wish that the rest of his family could for one day experience the cyclical pain of life as he knows it, blows out the candle, and conjures up a PG-rated Michael Haneke movie.
Both mom and dad enter career-crisis mode in tandem. Alexander’s BMOC big brother gets dumped by his girlfriend, sprouts a zit, and gets caught naked stepping out of the shower by his mom (an embarrassment that falls just short on the life-ending scale of contracting Ebola). Meanwhile, Alexander’s stage-brat sister gets a frog in her throat just when she’s supposed to make her debut as the title role in their school production of Peter Pan, though an overzealous dose of cough syrup does help her fly in front of her horrified audience. And so on and so forth.
Expanding the parameters of the original book so that the entire family is subjected to a series of indignities and calamities may have been a necessary concession to the demands of making an easily-digested feature-length kids’ movie, and it sets up with very little effort the 11th-hour homily that no terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day can touch you so long as you have family to soften the blow. (Unless, of course, they’re the ones responsible for said days.) But the expansion also has the unintended and unfortunate effect of doing exactly the same thing to Alexander he accused his family of doing in the first place: marginalizing him.