Cheaper By The Dozen

Movie Information

Score:

Genre: Comedy
Director: Shawn Levy
Starring: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hillary Duff, Tom Welling, Piper Perabo, Ashton Kutcher
Rated: PG

As if to prove its own cheapness, this cosmically God-awful package of Christmas jeer isn’t out of its opening credits before the boom microphone makes its first guest appearance.

That, however, is one of the least slipshod moments in this unbelievably generic comedy ostensibly based on the novel and 1950 film of the same name. The connection is tenuous at best, mostly consisting of a shared title and 12 children. There’s also a minor nod to the source novel, with the maiden name of character Kate Baker (Bonnie Hunt) made out to be Gilbreth (the family name in the novel and earlier movie). Maybe this was meant to suggest that this is some story involving a descendant of the Gilbreth clan, but since said descendant pens a book called Cheaper by the Dozen — as did two of the original dozen (Frank Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey) — that’s either off the mark, or Kate is merely a shameless and unoriginal plagiarist.

That most certainly can be said of the four named screenwriters: Craig Titley (Scooby Doo), Joel Cohen (Goodbye, Lover), Sam Harper (Just Married), and Alec Sokolow (Goodbye, Lover). There are bits and chunks of nearly every comedy about large families ever made; you’ll find traces of Yours, Mine, and Ours; TV’s The Brady Bunch (and its big screen incarnation); TV’s Eight Is Enough; and, perhaps most specifically, TV’s 7th Heaven (blessedly, minus the religiosity). That ought to be enough to warn you that what we have here is Sitcom 101 at its most virulent.

The original film featured Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy as a couple with 12 children (OK, so the idea of Webb siring 12 children is far-fetched), and centered on Webb’s profession as a pioneering efficiency expert. This round we get Steve Martin at his arrow-through-the-head-mugging worst, and Hunt as the wife with a literary bent. Martin’s character, Tom, has now been turned into a football coach (the common touch, you see) placed in the middle of a cliched plot about the family turmoil that results when he accepts a big-time position in Chicago, uprooting everyone from their small-town comfort. (The original moved them from Providence, R.I., to Montclair, N.J., thereby not indulging in this level of culture shock.)

Here is one of those plots that you can’t help but feel was cobbled together by folks who don’t really accept the existence of the space between NYC and L.A. as anything other than an inconvenience. Their ideas of small-town America are right out of bad television, while their concept of Chicago isn’t much better. I suppose this isn’t that important, since the film exists mostly to thrust on us a plethora of badly executed slapstick gags, while propagating those popular myths about how a father can’t control his children and needs to learn the value of placing his family above his career (didn’t Eddie Murphy just arrive at this blinding revelation in The Haunted Mansion?).

Considering that the film opens on a sequence involving the “comic” chaos of having a bullfrog drop into the family’s scrambled eggs out of a light fixture (how did the damn thing get there in the first place?), I’m not sure how the film thinks the family is all that under control with or without both parental units. No matter. Reality never intrudes on the proceedings.

Kate sends her book to a publisher friend who soon arrives on the scene with a printed and bound copy of the tome (complete with dust-jacket!) before there’s even a book contract — and then the plot has it that this book deal is predicated on Kate doing a book tour! (If such a publisher exists, I wish to God they’d contact me.) This, of course, sets the scene for husband Tom to prove his ineptitude at controlling a dozen kids — including 27-year-old Tom Welling (TV’s Smallville) as a high-school senior with a 5 o’clock shadow to rival that of Richard Nixon. (When, early in the film, the son tells Tom, “I’ve got to ask you something,” I was really thinking the question would be, “Why am I 27 and still living at home?”)

And then there’s mystifyingly popular Hillary Duff — continuing to make me long for an elephant gun whenever she appears onscreen — as the spoiled oldest daughter living at home (Piper Perabo plays the oldest daughter, who had the good sense to move out). Why neither she nor this overaged high-school student can help keep the remaining nine kids in line is a good question that the film only addresses by making the characters so self-centered that they rarely recognize anyone else’s existence. That, of course, changes when (gasp!) the family threatens to come apart at the seams, and one of the kids runs away (plot device No. 267).

Could anything be more unbelievable and trite? Probably not, though it is pretty unbelievable when the best thing in a movie is Ashton Kutcher in an unbilled role that pokes fun at his pretty-boy status and lack of talent. (This might have been a real surprise had the studio not insisted on putting him in the trailer.) But without Kutcher’s role, we’re left only with “laff riot” gags involving slipping in vomit, soaking underwear in meat to make the family dog attack Kutcher’s crotch, and a bunch of ineffectual, by-the-numbers assaults on the tear-ducts. I have a sneaking suspicion that this movie is really an object lesson designed to promote Planned Parenthood.

How bad is it? Well, for a brief moment, I wished I was watching From Justin to Kelly again.

– reviewed by Ken Hanke

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress since December 2000. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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