Yes Day not only stars Jennifer Garner but it’s produced by her. It’s her film. It’s another of those goofy family comedies that seem to be her default, the sort of film she returns to when she fancies some more of the 13 Going On 30 action – pop culture-y, adults doing kid stuff, silly, sentimental, a touch magical.
It wastes no time getting its offer onto the screen. By 15 minutes in we’ve met Allison (Garner) and Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), two life-affirming novelty-accepting “Yes” people who have got married and discovered that parenting is more about saying “No” – don’t stick your fingers in that socket etc – to the point that their three smart kids (Jenna Ortega, Julian Lerner, Everly Carganilla) are getting antsy and their teachers have become concerned.
A fix comes in the shape of Mr Deacon (Nat Faxon), one of those magical movie creations who waves a magic wand and changes everything, the wand here being the suggestion that the parents have a Yes Day – agree, with ground rules, to everything their kids want. The parents, chastened after a tough parent teacher evening, decide to give it a go. And off we venture, essentially leaving reality behind and entering “only in the movies” territory.
Yes Day is based on a meagre 40-page picture book aimed at the very young. It’s tempting to imagine an early script meeting in which screenplay writer Justin Malen reeled off the setup at speed and was then asked “and then what happens…?” by one of the suits, possibly Garner herself. “Oh, you know… shenanigans… antics… etcetera…” Which is pretty much what the rest of Yes Day consists of – the parents doing daffy things with their kids and the kids thinking it’s all great. Bouncing on the bed, dressing up ridiculously, taking a gigantic ice-cream-eating challenge, signing up for auditions for a TV reality show, going to a funfair and going on the most terrifying ride. And so on.
Are lessons learned by both parties? For sure.
Much as the original book is loved, one of the recurring gripes among Amazon reviewers is that “There is no story”. Malen’s adaptation attempts to get around that by introducing a subplot about 14-year-old Katie (Ortega) really really really wanting to go to a music festival where she will most likely be sexually interfered with by some older boy, it is suggested in a whisper. Great though she is at playing the smart, fun but naive Katie, Jenna Ortega is in fact 18, which is in sexual terms an evolutionary epoch away from 14 and makes this sub-plot less effective than it should be. The eye make-up doesn’t help.
As if assembling a knickerbocker glory, side characters have also been chucked in like sprinkles and squirty cream. As well as the magical Mr Deacon there are the bonkers ambulance driver Jean (Fortune Feimster), aggressive fairground customer Tara (Yimmy Yim) and ineffectual cop Officer Jones (Arturo Castro), all of whom are great inventions, add loads of sparkle and suggest there really are worries about a lack of “story”.
Paradoxically, the chopping and changing (and interchangeability) of these wacky characters makes things even less coherent. Yes Day has the setup/payoff rhythms of a trailer, as if made for kids high on aspartame.
It’s fine in small doses is another way of looking at it. Escapist in the least noble sense of the word – the parents are bad parents because they simply haven’t made enough time for their kids, not because they are juggling a thousand other concerns, like making a living. As we say in these conservative times, it is what it is. Reassuringly, the relentless yea-saying leads to pandemonium, and it turns out that conservative parenting techniques are the best policy – Mother knows best, and the kids agree too.
Even so, that finale involving Garner taking to the stage with singer/songwriter H.E.R. to sing, dance a bit and deliver some 13 Going On 30 juice is cute to the point of being grim. What was she thinking? And who’s going to tell the producer?
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© Steve Morrissey 2021