In real life, a “yes day” is a recently codified parenting technique where desperate moms and dads bait their kids towards good behavior by rewarding them with a 24-hour period in which the parents can’t say “no” to any of their kids’ (reasonable, affordable) requests. Candy for dinner? Sure. Wearing Peppa Pig cosplay to the park? If that’s what they want. Helping a local bear recover the stolen pop-up book he wants to give to his aunt for her birthday? As long as no one gets arrested that sounds just fine.
In Netflix’s “Yes Day,” a good-natured and diverting family comedy that gets a lot of mileage from marrying über-mom Jennifer Garner to “Carlos” star Édgar Ramírez (cast against type in the role of a fun-loving lawyer dad who twerks within the first 10 minutes ), a “yes day” is basically the Purge for kids. Of course it starts on an innocent note, with the youngest of Allison and Carlos Torres’ three kids forcing her parents to dress up as glitter-spackled superheroes for the family’s gut-busting trip to a Korean ice cream shop, but things quickly spiral out of control from there. The next few hours alone will see people get arrested, parents wind up in the hospital, and a prepubescent child paraphrase “Apocalypse Now.” That’s one thing American kids movies have always understood all too well: When it comes to parenting, keeping the peace is always worth its price in chaos.
The latest pivot in the long and strange filmography of “Chuck & Buck” director Miguel Arteta (who leveraged early Sundance fame into a career spent pinballing between off-beat indies like “Beatriz at Dinner” and broad studio fare along the lines of last year’s “Like a Boss”), “Yes Day” swan-dives into its premise with all the gloss and obviousness we’ve come to expect from streaming movies in the content age, but there’s also a knowing sharpness to the opening scenes that should intrigue parents even as the film’s blitz-fast story unfolds at a pace designed to keep up their kids’ short attention spans. “‘Yes’ was like the theme of our relationship,” Garner’s voiceover warmly intones over video clips of a younger Allison and Carlos sky-diving and traveling the world. “Although having kids is the best thing that ever happened to us, ‘no’ became the new ‘yes.’” No you can’t stay up playing on your iPad, no you can’t snort a pound of of sugar right before bed, no you can’t attend something called “Fleekfest” with your friend and her cool older cousin who probably sells murder TikToks on her OnlyFans or whatever combination of buzzwords parents use to scare each other these days.
Even the most free-spirited adventurers can turn into tyrannical dictators when they’re playing zone defense against a trio of adorable walking ids, and Justin Malen’s script keys into the way that moms often wind up playing bad cop while dads have all the fun. Garner — unbeatable at playing no-nonsense mama bears who can unleash their inner child at a moment’s notice — is as easy to believe as the overstressed planner of the Torres family as she is as the parent who takes everyone’s fun a little too seriously, and her reliably game comic performance adds depth to a movie that doesn’t beg for any because of how well she blurs the line between those two modes. Every rule is tempered with love, and every laugh simmers with worry.
Ramírez is the one who’s stretching out of his comfort zone here, but it never feels that way; the criminal vibe he channeled in the likes of “Wasp Network” and “Point Break” is refashioned into a conspiratorial dad energy that carries the movie’s biggest laughs (especially when it leads him toward “Meet the Parents” degrees of Ben Stiller body harm). It’s a clever touch that Carlos flips that script as soon as he gets to work in the morning and turns into the office disciplinarian — the ability to keep people in line is there, he just lets his wife fall on that sword at home.
But with a little girl (Everly Carganilla), a messy pre-teen boy (Julian Lerner) and a precocious teenage daughter (the very capable “You” actress, published author, and social media star Jenna Ortega) all resenting their mom’s authority in their own ways, something needs to be done. Yes Day is only the solution, and it’s not just for the kids, it’s also Allison’s way of proving how much fun she can be under the right circumstances — maybe even her way of discovering the role she can play in her children’s lives once they no longer need her protection.
“Yes Day” loses steam as it spirals away from Allison’s control and further into screwball territory. It goes without saying that Carlos getting diarrhea in a food court bathroom is comedy gold, and an open-window car wash is exactly the kind of low-stakes anarchy that families might actually be inspired to indulge in (it’s COVID safe!). A massive water balloon fight shot like a war scene that involves dozens of extras is a much harder sell, and tees up the second half of a movie that entrusts too much of its momentum to cartoon violence and scene-stealing bit parts (effectively played by reliable comic actors like Fortune Feimster, Arturo Castro, and Nat Faxon). The jokes get less specific, the Yes Day activities begin to strain belief, and the characters feel yanked towards whatever personal growth is waiting for them at the end of this breathless 85-minute sprint.
It’s hard to satisfy three different kid demographics and their parents in the span of a single film, and “Yes Day” doesn’t necessarily deserve points for trying, least of all down the home stretch when major beats are shoehorned in without enough support to stand on their own two feet (speaking from personal experience, Carlos’ “I’ll be the bad cop from now on” speech isn’t worth the three seconds it took for Malen to write). But the easiest way to tell if a movie like this is working is if it looks like it was a good time to make, and “Yes Day” seems like it was a blast for everybody involved.
Assisted by his playful cast, Arteta brings so much clear-eyed, character-driven comic mayhem to every scene that even the wildest script contrivances and most egregious McDonald’s product placements (one scene might as well be sponsored by the McGriddle) are graced with an actual sense of fun. Once upon a time a family movie like this would have run a solid two hours and allowed its characters to breathe a little bit, but less baldly functional entertainment is about the biggest “no” there is in modern Hollywood. At least Arteta, naive enough to include a mid-credit stinger that most people will never even see thanks to Netflix’s auto-play function, has made something that actually manages to feel like a labor of love from time to time. Whether you’re talking about family movies or family itself, that’s good enough to get by.
“Yes Day” will be available to stream on Netflix starting Friday, March 12