Twenty-five years ago, “Yes Day” would have been a dumbed-down high-concept Hollywood family comedy, and you could say it still is. The difference is that now it’s the Netflix version, which means, in this case, that it’s not so much “dumb” as post-psychological. The premise, for anyone who’s a parent, will sound rather catchy. Allison (Jennifer Garner), taken to task by her three children for being a Debbie Downer of a mom — a joyless disciplinarian who’s perpetually saying “No” — agrees to indulge her kids in a Yes Day. That is, for an entire day, she and her husband, the genial Carlos (Edgar Ramirez), will have to say yes to any request, big or small, that the kids make. “No, you can’t do that” isn’t on the table. The idea is that this will act as a kind of do-what-you-please purge for the children — a way for them to blow off steam, and also a way to demonstrate to them that their mom isn’t the ogre of authority they’ve come to believe she is.
But here’s what’s strange — and kind of off, and not, in the end, very funny — about the movie. If you’re going to cast someone as a mother who has lost her sense of yes, the last actor on earth anyone would think of is Jennifer Garner. She has never lost her witty ebullience, her dimpled sparkle. In “Yes Day,” the scene where Allison learns how disenchaned her kids have become with her negative ways is a telling one. Allison and Carlos show up at school for parent-teacher conferences, and two of the kids’ instructors greet them to break the bad news. It seems that Katie (Jenna Ortega), the couple’s spitfire 14-year-old, has written a haiku comparing herself to a caged bird. Nando (Julia Lerner), their tween son, has made a short film comparing Allison to Stalin and Mussolini, full of candidly shot home-video clips of her dictatorial behavior. We see her saying things like “You’re not going anywhere until you finish your homework!”
Allison watches these clips and says to the teachers, with a calm smile, “That’s parenting.” She even gives herself a symbolic pat on the pack. I personally thought this was a rather good scene, because I agreed with Allison — there’s absolutely nothing in Nando’s video, or in the movie so far, that indicates she’s anything less than a loving parent who’s trying to stick to some ground rules, lay down some boundaries, and instill a sense of discipline in her kids. In fact, it’s so obvious that she’s a good mom that the upshot of the scene is that it isn’t really Allison’s parenting that’s the problem. The problem is the culture: a society of increasingly slapdash and unhinged yes-yes-yes-ness that encourages parents to lay down their arms, give in to the whims of their children, and not act as if there’s anything larger at stake.
“Yes Day” is a lavishly staged sitcom, and Garner and Ramírez display a likable beleaguered connection as the parents, but what the film sets up is a genuine social and psychological situation — one that demands, or at least asks, to be played out with a certain wry observational behavioral flair.
And that’s just what the movie doesn’t do. Maybe I’m asking too much. Dude, come on, it’s just a Netflix family comedy! But the director, Miguel Arteta (“Like a Boss,” “Beatriz at Dinner”), is a filmmaker who has proved that he can mine commercial set-ups for a certain light-fingered frisson. Here, he’s working from a script by Justin Malen, loosely based on a children’s book that was written (by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Tom Lichtenheld) for little kids, and the story has been given a make-over — an older spin — without necessarily being reimagined. “Yes Day” strings together a series of just-say-yes set pieces that don’t play out the central premise so much as they turn it into an extended kiddie-action-movie burlesque.
The family goes to an ice-cream parlor, where they fulfill the kids’ demand by ordering the Gut Buster, an obscene crock of ice cream and candy that costs $40 — unless you eat it in under 30 minutes, in which case it’s free. They give it a try, with Carlos slurping them over the finish line (and he doesn’t even throw up!). Then it’s on to a car wash with the car windows rolled down, and then an adventure-park team game called Kablowey, which Nando describes as “capture the flag meets paintball meets a butt ton of Kool-Aid.”
The sequence unfolds like the climax to a Jon Cena movie, but here, as in the ice-cream parlor, Allison puts on her game face — she’s more than ready to prove to her kids that she’ll roll with whatever they want. She even suggests that they go to Magic Mountain, a theme park with epic roller-coasters. Yet what does any of this have to do with the tricky parental dance of giving into your children’s moment-by-moment demands? “Yes Day” is simply a movie about diving head-first into the crassness of kiddie culture.
Allison and Katie, whom she’s “scared of letting go of,” have made a bet: If Allison can make it through the day without saying no, then she can accompany Katie to Fleek Fest, a kind of Coachella for teenagers. But if she slips up even once, falling into reflexive no-ness, Katie can go to the festival without adult supervision. This plays out in a truly unsatisfying way, since Allison holds up her end of the bargain — and Katie still skulks off on her own. Then again, it’s nothing that a little concert cameo by mom, ushered onto the Freek Fest stage by the pop star H.E.R. so that she can do an impromptu performance of “Baby I Need Your Loving,” won’t cure. Is “Yes Day” a comedy about how kids, hooked on yes, need to learn the value of no? Of course it is. The trouble with the movie is that it doesn’t squeeze enough laughs (or, indeed, any) out of showing you how they get there.