Yes Day (2021)
★★ / ★★★★
Notice that if you were to remove Jennifer Garner from this film, it would not be worth seeing. Her joyous performance is so infectious, so full of lightness, giddiness, and vitality, you cannot help to smile even though the picture’s roughest patches. Watch her closely during the busiest moments: despite a handful of people on screen, quirky or crazy things happening left and right, and even when the editing is choppy on top of a blaring soundtrack, her creative choices allow her to rise above it all. Her extensive experience shines through.
This can be observed so clearly when the Torres family, in the middle of their Yes Day, visits a Korean ice cream shop. Garner’s character, Allison, is dressed head to toe like a futuristic pop star on acid. (The youngest of the Torres clan gave her a “makeover” that morning.) Lesser performers would have relied on the character’s appearance to make us laugh. But not Garner.
Because she is so into her character as a mother who wish to prove to her three children (Jenna Ortega, Julian Lerner, Everly Carganilla), believing she is too strict and uptight, that she still has it in her to be in the moment with reckless abandon, Garner channels the younger version of her character who we met during the picture’s terrific opening montage. When she goes down on that enormous ice cream, look at the way she tilts her head. Those eyes sparkle. There is a snap in every movement. She need not say a word to tell us she’s youthful. She brings forth active but subtle comedy as opposed to something that is obvious or passive. Her performance reminded me of Kathleen Turner in Francis Ford Coppola’s time travel film “Peggy Sue Got Married.”
This may sound like effusive praises given that the work is supposed to be a breezy, harmless family film. But I say it isn’t. The best family films, after all, are those that offer something truly special, characteristics beyond just another poop or fart joke, yet another idiot character falling down the stairs or off a ladder while putting on—or taking off—Christmas lights. While I don’t think that Miguel Arteta’s “Yes Day” is special by any means, it is important that we acknowledge good work. In this case, Garner is the jewel that keeps this otherwise ordinary family flick shining.
Yes Day is a day when parents are not allowed to refuse what their children want to do—with a few exceptions such as criminal activities or asking for something in the future (like getting a pet). It is a silly premise, to be sure, but at the same time so much can be done with it. And because there are possibilities, the comedy can be malleable. Strong comedies are never one-note.
For a good while, the movie is riotously entertaining. Credit to the screenplay by Justin Malen, who adapted the project from a children’s book by Amy Korouse Rosenthal (author) and Tom Lichtenheld (illustrator), for having the insight to give the audience a roadmap, in the form of a list, of what the Torres kids wish to do that special day. Because we possess the knowledge that the kids have five events planned for Mom and Dad (Édgar Ramírez), we are given a rough idea about the level of insanity for each succeeding event. (The fifth item on the list is surrounded by stars. You just know something serious will go down.)
It is without question that the film is at its best when it goes all in with its comedy. It doesn’t matter how silly, or dumb, or mainstream a scenario comes across. It is a wish-fulfillment story in the first place. But when it injects superficial drama, like the eldest daughter craving independence from her mother, the pacing is derailed to the point where it becomes unrecoverable. The fun tone turns rather dour and for no realistic reason. This film should have been cotton candy from beginning to end. And I am convinced that a seasoned filmmaker like Arteta knows it, too. But compromises had to be made for the sake of marketability.