The film follows the exploits of Alexander Cooper (Ed Oxenbould), an ordinary 11-year-old boy, and his "terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day." He is left out by his family; his older brother, Anthony (Dylan Minnette), his older sister, Emily (Kerris Dorsey), his mother, Kelly (Jennifer Garner), his father, Ben (Steve Carell), and his baby brother, Trevor (Elise/Zoey Vargas), living in the Los Angeles metropolitan area of California.
Anthony is trying to earn his driver's license so he can drive his bitter girlfriend, Celia, to the prom; Emily is rehearsing for the title role in her school play; Kelly is working for a publication company that is publishing a new children's book which will promote her to vice president of the company; and Ben, who has been unemployed for seven months, has landed a job interview as a game designer for a video game company.
That same morning, Alexander attends school where he experiences another series of mishaps, such as accidentally setting fire to his crush, Becky Gibson's, notebook as well as finding out that his friends, including Becky, and even his best friend, Paul, will all be attending the birthday party of Philip Parker (Lincoln Melcher) instead of his, due to Philip's expensive party entertainment and popularity. That night, Alexander puts a candle on a sundae and wishes that everyone in his family would experience what he is going through.
The next morning, Alexander wakes up to find his family in disarray and chaos erupts; his parents have overslept, Emily has a cold, and Anthony has found out that he and Celia broke up. The battery in Kelly's car is dead, and Ben has to take Trevor with him to the interview after dropping Kelly off at work. At school, Paul gives Alexander good news: Philip's birthday party is canceled (as Philip has the chicken pox), so the kids (including Becky and Paul) that were originally going to attend Philip's party will attend Alexander's party instead, much to Alexander's delight. Alexander calls his father, asking him to plan a party for him. Kelly is informed of an embarrassing typo in the book they are publicizing ("dump" instead of "jump") and needs to stop Dick Van Dyke from reading it at a public reading later. Ben takes Trevor along to the office interview and meets Greg (Donald Glover) who seems impressed at his credentials, although they decide to hold another meeting after Trevor ingests a non-toxic highlighter. Meanwhile, at school, Anthony finds out that Celia has gotten back together with him. Feeling excited about what happened, Anthony jumps up and hits a banner, not knowing that it's connected to two trophy cases, which fall and smash. Because of this, Anthony is suspended from school.
Kelly manages to arrive at Dick Van Dyke's reading, but she is too late in trying to warn him about the book's typo. He reads it with the inappropriate material, humiliating himself, scaring the kids and almost getting Kelly arrested. Meanwhile, Ben purchases cough syrup for Emily's symptoms and takes Anthony to the Department of Motor Vehicles, where his driving examiner intentionally distracts him by convincing him to pick up his cell phone, causing him to destroy several parking meters and damage the family minivan, and ultimately fail his driving exam. As the family argues, Alexander admits his birthday wish to them and apologizes for making everyone suffer a horrible day. Ben reminds him that the day is not ruined because it is not over yet, and the family tries to stay positive as the day continues.
After getting Anthony a tuxedo at a shop, the family all go to Emily's play, which is inadvertently sabotaged by her impaired behavior because of her getting excessively drunk after overdosing on the cough syrup. Afterwards, the game design firm calls Ben and asks him to meet them at Nagamaki, a Japanese hibachi restaurant, for another meeting. The family, joined by Celia, goes to the restaurant in their badly damaged minivan, where Ben accidentally sets his shirt on fire at the grill, embarrassing him to the employers. The whole family consoles him, admitting that they will overcome whatever else the day has in store for them. Alexander states, "You just gotta have the bad days so you can love the good days even more", and Anthony suddenly decides not to go to the prom with Celia, stating that his family is more important, and they break up completely.
The family returns home and discovers that Ben had hired a rental animal service to recreate an Australian petting zoo for Alexander's birthday party. A crocodile and kangaroo, however, have escaped from their cage. They then decide to pitch in to try and salvage the day by helping host it. Ben and Kelly receive good news: he got hired for the game design job, and she has been informed that the celebrity reading went viral and has created publicity for the book. Reunited, Ben then brings out the cake, with Alexander wishing for more days like the one they shared together.
- Ed Oxenbould as Alexander Cooper, the protagonist
- Steve Carell as Ben Cooper, Alexander's father
- Jennifer Garner as Kelly Cooper, Alexander's mother
- Dylan Minnette as Anthony Cooper, Alexander's older brother
- Kerris Dorsey as Emily Cooper, Alexander's older sister
- Elise and Zoey Vargas as Trevor Cooper, Alexander's younger baby brother
- Bella Thorne as Celia Rodriguez, Anthony's girlfriend and the main antagonist
- Joel Johnstone as Logan
- Megan Mullally as Nina
- Sidney Fullmer as Becky Gibson, Alexander's crush
- Jennifer Coolidge as Ms. Suggs, the driving instructor
- Dick Van Dyke as Himself
- Mekai Curtis as Paul, Alexander's best friend
- Lincoln Melcher as Phillip Parker, Alexander's rival
In 2011, it was reported that 20th Century Fox had plans to make a live action film adaptation of the book. Written by Lisa Cholodenko and Rob Lieber, the film was set to be directed by Cholodenko, and produced by Shawn Levy with Dan Levine for Levy's 21 Laps, and Lisa Henson with Jason Lust for The Jim Henson Company. Steve Carell has joined in April 2012, to star as Ben, Alexander's father. In October 2012, Walt Disney Pictures has picked up the project, reportedly due to Fox being "uncomfortable with the budget." In February 2013, Deadline reported that Cholodenko has left the project, and a month later, that Miguel Arteta was in talks with Disney to replace Cholodenko. In April 2013, Jennifer Garner was in talks to play Kelly, Alexander's mother. In June 2013, The Walt Disney Studios set the release date for October 10, 2014, and confirmed that Carell and Garner will play Alexander's parents. The same month, Disney casted Ed Oxenbould as Alexander. In July 2013, Shake It Up star Bella Thorne was cast in the film as Celia, Anthony's girlfriend. Joel Johnstone, Megan Mullally, and Jennifer Coolidge joined the cast a month later.
Principal photography and production began in August 2013. The film was entirely shot in the Los Angeles area, including the cities of Pasadena and Arcadia, the San Fernando Valley, and Melody Ranch in Newhall.
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