In a 2018 post on Instagram, Jennifer Garner appears in a red jumpsuit, dangling from a T-bar as it slowly lifts her above a large aluminum slide in some upscale indoor playplace. “Oh, I wish I hadn’t done this,” she mutters to her onlooking family. “I hate this so much. Why’d I do this?” Though she may have some misgivings about the zany position she’s in, Garner soon loosens her grip and, with a deep breath of composure, slips down onto a cushioned landing pad. It’s a pretty anticlimactic resolution for what turned out to be a very low-stakes situation, not really meriting the emotional playing-up the movie star gives it. This anodyne revelry provides the basis for the new film Yes Day, and as good a summation of its general vibe as one could hope to find.
Actor, producer, and supermom Garner observes an annual holiday known as Yes Day, originated in a 2009 children’s book and treated here like a phenomenon sweeping America. For 24 hours, parents acquiesce to their kids’ most whimsical and messy requests, the idea being that having this outlet for their rambunctious energies will make youngsters better behaved for the other 364 days of the year. (It’s crucial that anything dangerous or illegal is barred, because as several Twitterers have already noted, the movie basically operates under Purge logic.) But in this loose adaptation of Garner’s real-life hijinks, courtesy of screenwriter Justin Malen and director Miguel Arteta, Mom and Dad have a thing or two to gain from the experience as well.
In fact, the whole anything-goes enterprise seems to be mostly for the grown-ups’ benefit. Affluent SoCal working stiffs Carlos (Edgar Ramirez) and Allison (Garner) used to be nonstop thrill-seekers, skydiving and eating spicy foods with all caution blowing in the wind behind them. But the responsibilities of adult life—Carlos is a workaholic lawyer, Allison fills her days keeping her reckless offspring’s brains inside their uncracked skulls—have made fun-squelchers of them both. The windows-down car wash, water-balloon Capture The Flag game, and diarrhea-inducing dessert feast don’t just offer a chance for the kids to go hog wild. These antics also enable a pair of grown-up grumpuses to get back in touch with their inner grade-schooler. For Allison, forced to play the bad guy while aloof Carlos remains the affable good cop when he’s around, it’s a chance to prove to herself that she’s still got it.
The difficult negotiations of childrearing might have been a fine subtext—something to occupy the attention of parents in the audience—for a comedy so unmistakably family-oriented in tone. But in Yes Day, that element of the story is less of a side dish served for a more mature palate than the whole entrée. Allison and Carlos’ unruly kids, each more annoying than the last, get a single trait apiece: 14-year-old Kate (Jenna Ortega) wants to go to a music festival, middle son Nando (Julian Lerner) likes science, and littlest Ellie (Everly Carganilla) is loud. They learn nothing beyond a newfound appreciation and respect for their elders, the deadest giveaway of all that however juvenile its ’tude, this project was conceived with harried fortysomethings in mind.
It’s tricky to predict how well it will nonetheless play with real live youths in need of fresh content to fill the endless spans of quarantine downtime. Presumably they’ll appreciate the cameo appearance from H.E.R., explicitly introduced as Big With The Kids These Days. It’s less likely that they, or anyone, will get a chuckle out of cheeky Nando mugging for the camera and shouting, “I love the smell of Kool-Aid in the morning!” The film’s only hope for establishing some common intergenerational ground lies with the comic secret weapons popping in for a scene here and there. If everyone’s going to come together in enjoyment of anything, it’ll probably be Nat Faxon as an awkward tater tot fetishist or Fortune Feimster as a slightly overzealous EMT.
For Arteta, this is a sad pivot from the roiling sexual dysfunction of his recent Duck Butter back to the dismal fluff of the Garner-starring Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. The primary creative auteur here probably isn’t the director but his star. Garner’s made “perfectly imperfect mom” a key part of her public brand in recent years, from sitting as a board member on child welfare nonprofit Save The Children USA to advocating for celeb-family protections against paparazzi to cofounding an organic baby food company. With that in mind, the most interesting way to process this otherwise unremarkable confection is as her most direct statement on the tribulations of motherhood. All sprinkles and no ice cream, it at least offers a rose-tinted window into the pathology of a woman who spent years going above and beyond as a caretaker, both for her children and a husband in need.