Monday, October 13, 2014

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, etc: Dads are Not Moms, Damnit.

Based on the previews, I thought I was really going to hate Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.  I was pretty bummed about my potential hatred, too, because I think the book is just adorable, and I even sort of liked the horrible children's theater musical version of the story that I saw on a second grade field trip last year.  But that preview where the kangaroo kicks Steve Carrell?  SO DUMB.

That scene was pretty damn dumb in the movie, too.  And I didn't believe for one tiny second that Jennifer Garner would ever kiss Steve Carell, let alone have 4 children with him.

But still, these are minor complaints.

The boys wanted to see it.  I wanted to not hang out with Dorothy and Cooper who were unusually terrible and screamy.  It was a match made in heaven.

It surprised me by being  a very cute movie.  Scenes that would have been loud and fake and terrible in the hands of the actors who play bumbling dads on Disney channel tween sitcoms were understated and sweet with Carrell at the helm.  Teen character types that would have been snarky and insufferable on Jessie or Ant Farm were genuine and loving in this movie.  Ridiculous animal-on-the-loose scenes were kind of funny (KIND OF), and most of the slapstick was warranted (excluding the dumb kangaroo thing).  It was a good enough family movie.

I have loved Jennifer Garner since 13 Going on 30, which remains one of my favorite guilty pleasure movies, and she was adorable and bubbly and charming in this movie, too.  Both Garner and Carell rounded out their characters and played them like real, likable, relatable people.

 It was even OK with me that the Cooper family was obviously so loaded that the stresses of daily life just couldn't get them down.  Job in jeopardy?  S'all right.  Still got that perfectly finished kitchen lousy with $500 Dutch ovens.  Been laid off for 7 months?  S'OK.  How about a pricey mommy-and-me yoga class to ease the tension.  Teenage son wrecks your minivan? Think about it in your giant backyard soaking in your country-club-sized pool.  I mean, the script talked relentlessly about the family's positive attitude, but come on now people.  It's easy to be positive when you have enough cash to make the unexpected problem NO BIG DEAL.  White privilege at work: unspoken but also really loud.

What rubbed me the wrong way, though, was the way the movie talked about work and gender.  Within the first 5 or so minutes, it is clear that Ben Cooper stays home with his kids and Kelly Cooper goes to work.  I thought this was a refreshing twist on the usual SAHM/WOHD dynamic in kids' movies.  Sure, Kelly looks regretfully at her baby on her way out the door, but don't we all?  I mean name 1 single breakfast scene in any movie ever where the dad goes to work with a wistful glance at his kids, but whatevs.  But then the audience quickly learns that Ben is only home with the kids as a stop-gap desperate sort of solution because he is laid off an looking for a job.  Luckily Kelly landed a good one in kiddie lit to keep the family in Le Creusets and backyard petting zoos, but as the movie notes, her returning to work has been really hard on 12-year-old Alexander.  Gah.  Name me one movie where the dad going to work is a problem for the kids, especially when his partner stays home.

Ben takes the baby to a mommy-and-me yoga class where another parent tells him he is a Fommy.  A father mommy.  Because, you know, dads don't mother.  If this doesn't make you want to puke,  a few seconds later, the baby calls Ben Fommy.  THEN at dinner that night, Kelly is all sad because the baby said Fommy, not Mommy.

Of course (OF COURSE) the trope of the evil boss who hates family life and wants the disembodied, liberal subject, ideal worker is in this movie, too, in the form of Megan Mullally, who tells Kelly Cooper she needs to be at work 24/7 if she wants a promotion.  Kelly responds by saying she'll have to make time to see her kids (How often does this happen in movies where the dad goes to work?  Not very because it's NORMAL for a dad to work.  As this movie reminds us a thousand times in a thousand tiny ways, it's not normal for moms to do this).  Her boss tells her she can just look at their pictures and laughs an evil, tropey laugh.  I mean, WTF? For a second I thought I was watching Baby Boom.

Ben takes his baby with him on a job interview and of course the kid eats a permanent marker because dads aren't moms (this point is further driven home by the children telling Kelly about a time when Ben lost the baby at Target), and the guys conducting the interview draw his attention to the marker consumption saying something like "hey your baby."  Ben responds quickly by assuring them that he will "put the kid in daycare."  Erm.  Where's the emotional turmoil that a mom in this situation would be duty-bound to perform?  Oh, right, it's not there because dads aren't moms.  Silly me.

Thank goodness resolution did not come through the characters' assumption of normal gender roles because my head might have exploded all over the kids and the people in front of us.  But Ben is happily employed at the end of the move in a unicorn tech job that will let him flex his hours and drive carpool and "see the kids."  Kelly, presumably, does not get promoted, but she also does not quit or get fired.  Which really doesn't matter because the Cooper's remain covered up in cash.

Now, you guys, I get it.  This 90-minute movie is based on a really short, really vague children's book.  Some stuff HAS to happen.  But WHY this stuff?  Why couldn't Ben Cooper be a SAHD without comment, the way the mom in the book is a SAHM without comment?  Why introduce such a tortured look at work/family/gender balance?

Disney has been knocking it out of the park in terms of feminism lately.  Hello, Elsa and Anna?  Maleficent? My heroes for sure.  The Coopers?  Not so much.  But, good news, I didn't hate the movie like I thought I would or for the same reasons I thought I would.  And Jack shared his Junior Mints.


  1. "Tropey laugh"
    I like! Also, in an odd way, it was kind of confusing to read this post because "Ben" and "Cooper" sound like your people--except they aren't. Plot twist!

  2. Did you watch Alias?
    If you're a Garner fan you should definitely add this series to your Netflix library.

  3. I feel grumpity about the parent roles in this movie. Thankfully, my kids are very irked it was made into a movie. But, the Paddington Bear movie coming out soon? Julia is alllll about that one.