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Cheaper by the Dozen is a movie that feels stuck halfway between something bland and something terrific, between made-for-TV and movie classic, between Steve Martin's zany Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and his execrable Sgt. Bilko.
As the wild-and-crazy guy continues his frightening slide into late-period Robin Williamsesque earnestness, Cheaper by the Dozen gives us a Martin that is neither too funny nor too boring. As Tom Baker, the harried father of twelve children, Martin still has that slow burn and quick wince masked by an everything's-all-right grin
but yet, there's something missing from the moviea sharp comic edge that would have counteracted some of the film's bluntly sober goodness. Martin and co-star Bonnie Hunt both seem trapped by a script that demands they play their parts straight.
Cheaper by the Dozen is, of course, a modernized version of an old-fashioned story. The book, published in 1949, told the story of the Gilbreth brood at the turn of the century. A year later, the movie starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, was a popular success. In that version, father Gilbreth was an efficiency expert and mother was a psychologist. In this version, there's more pop psychology (a la Dr. Phil) but not that much efficiency. Cheaper by the Dozen can be a messy, chaotic film which is at odds with its other tendency to be static, predictable, sappy and serious.
In the 1950 film, major family crises included simultaneous tonsillectomies, prom dates and school enrollment. In the new millennium, the pressures of our mobile, transient society come to bear on the family when the Baker clan uproots their country household and moves to the big city when Tom, a football coach at a small Midwestern college, is given the chance to coach a Chicago team. The kidswho range in age from pre-school twins to 22-year-old Nora (Piper Perabo) who's already living in Chicago with her boyfriendare flatly against the move, but they all go along because father knows best. Besides, maybe it will give mother Kate material for a new chapter in the book she's writing: "Cheaper by the Dozen" (though why she didn't name it "Baker's Dozen" is a mystery).
Soon after settling into their large 1920s houseone of the few nods to the source materialKate's book is accepted by a New York publisher and she's off on a national book tour, leaving that sober-and-sappy guy in charge of the wild-and-crazy household. The ensuing chaos includes pre-teens rappelling down the side of the house, a snake escaping at a birthday party, several squirts of Silly String in Tom's face, and a chandelier which gets broken at least three times.
It's just one more chapter in the by-now-familiar formula of Father Doesn't Know Best But He's About to Learna trend which started around the time that Dustin Hoffman burned the French toast in Kramer vs. Kramer twenty-five years ago. You'd think that after twenty-three years of marriage and fathering a dozen little humans, Tom Baker would be a little more adept at keeping the spaghetti sauce off the kitchen ceiling. But the whole point of the movieand boy does it pound this drum with a sledgehammeris that Mother Kate is the calm eye of the storm and only she can bring instant peace and harmony to the house (while Dad can only stand by with his wince and grin).
Don't get me wrongI have nothing against this kind of scenario; I just have a problem seeing it on the screen over and over againat least a dozen times a dozen. Given the talents of its stars and the potential situations for comedy, Cheaper by the Dozen disappointingly plows no new ground.
Though Martin and Hunt have nice chemistry together, the script flatlines for long stretches into a chuckle-free wasteland. What the movie needs is a little more of that wild-and-crazy goofiness from Martin and a lot more of Hunt's under-her-breath acerbic wit. What saves the movie from being instant forgettable is the supporting cast. Save, perhaps, for Hilary Duff with her patented Chirpspeak style of emoting every line as if she was announcing a, like, totally awesome sale down at the Gap, none of the young actors vies to have center stage. To director Shawn Levy's credit, he gets a truly ensemble performance from the young brood. Watching Cheaper by the Dozen, you get the feeling that these are children who really have lived together and formed close family ties. Throwing aside W.C. Fields' rule number one, the kids (and a dog) steal the show, especially newcomer Alyson Stoner as 12-year-old tomboy Sarah who wears her heart in her eyes.
There's also a funny interlude involving underwear steeped in raw hamburger and Nora's boyfriend Hank (Ashton Kutcher), a pompous actor transfixed by his mouthwash commercial on TV. Yes, watching the family dog chew at Hank's crotch is a funny prank, but it's just one of a handful of jokes which take too long to set up (including an opening where a pet frog jumps onto the breakfast table and slimes everyone with scrambled eggs).
The best I can say about Cheaper by the Dozen is that it's kind and gentle, something the whole family can confidently watch without fear of profanity or violence, and only a smidge of sexual innuendo (hey, these two had twelve kids for crying out loudyou've gotta have at least one wink-and-nudge).
Cheaper by the Dozen works hard to keep it tame. When Tom catches his daughter's boyfriend having an illicit sleepover he admonishes the pair: "This is a G-rated household!" Indeed, you'd be hard pressed to find a more domestic PG movie at the cineplex this holiday season. There's a vomit scene played for hilarity, but that's about as rough as it gets in a story that makes family values its centerpiece.
The movie's heart bleeds on its sleeve, especially when it shifts to a more serious tone in the third act. Still, Cheaper by the Dozen can be a pleasant way to spend an unchallenging, forgettable 90 minutes. It may not be high art, but it is big on heart.
Read more product reviews on Cheaper by the Dozen (DVD, 2007, Sensormatic; Baker's Dozen Edition; Bonus Disc)
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