...the film is about children who are so selfish they ensure their parents are as unhappy as the audience.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

Based on the same Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Jr., and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey book as the charming 1950 movie, this 2003 remake brings to a complete shambles what had been in the earlier film a pleasant, turn-of-the-century story of family life. If you liked the old movie, I'd advise your buying or renting it, as it is now also available on DVD. Anything to avoid this current catastrophe.

Updated to the present, the new "Cheaper By the Dozen" stars Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt as the parents of twelve children, aged five through twenty-two, who are so obnoxious as to make any married couple swear off kids forever. The director, Shawn Levy, previously did "Just Married" and "Big Fat Liar" and seems to be making a career out of these frivolous, humorless affairs. Yet the movies keep making money hand over fist. Go figure. Maybe there's a dearth of family-oriented pictures these days, and the public will grab onto any title they think might be decent.

Martin and Hunt play Tom and Kate Baker, the names having been changed from the original, semiautobiographical book. It's easy to see why Martin's character could want such a big family. Comedians like a big audience. But it's harder to understand how the trim and youthful, thirty-nine-year-old Bonnie Hunt could be mistaken for someone who had produced twelve children. Only in Hollywood.

The oldest daughter, Nora, is played by Piper Perabo. Nora is a beauteous young lady currently living away from the family with a slacker, Hank, played by an uncredited Ashton Kutcher. Perabo and Kutcher place a burden on the film's wholesome meter by being unwed yet sleeping together. Anyway, Perabo's character behaves much more maturely than anyone else in the film, while Kutcher's character is a typically Kutcher character, meaning he's fundamentally useless, in this case a would-be actor and model who watches his one-and-only TV commercial all day.

When the movie opens, the Baker family are living in an impossibly ideal country house in the Midwest, the Baker kids are impossibly cute, and the Baker parents are impossibly kind and tolerant and patient. Tom is the well-loved coach of a local small-college football team, and Kate is a writer who has given up a big-city newspaper job to become a full-time mom. This is the kind of family that's so together they eat all three of their daily meals as a group, and cuddly-sweet things continue to happen like frogs hopping down from the light fixtures into the morning breakfast food.

The movie follows virtually no plot, made up primarily of a series of episodes displaying the eccentric family's eccentric actions. The most important story conflict involves the parents' decision to move to another house when the father is offered a high-paid coaching job at a big college, and the mother publishes a book about raising twelve children called, what else, "Cheaper By the Dozen." Naturally, the children hate the move, hate their parents for making them move, and plan to disrupt the idea.

Not only do the kids attempt to destroy the notion of moving, they destroy any semblance of reality in the narrative. This movie is not intended as pure farce; it's not an "Airplane" or a "Pink Panther" or even a "Super Troopers." It's meant to be taken as a humorous exaggeration of reality. Yet real life plays no part in the proceedings.

There are twelve kids in the family, and the mother's got glassware everywhere around the house. Why? Waiting to be broken in some amusing way, naturally. In the film's only concession to the earlier, 1950 film, when the family move from the country to the city suburbs, they find a house that looks from the outside like a Victorian mansion and is even more elaborate on the inside. Anywhere in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live, such a place would go for at least $2,000,000. They get it in the Midwest on a coach's salary. OK.

When the younger children get to their new school, every other kid in the place hates and abuses them. Why? Who knows? For the good of the story, I guess. When the oldest teen goes out for the high school football team, he's ridiculed and assigned the lowest position possible for no other reason than that he's from out of town. And nobody, not a single other kid on the team nor any of the high school coaches recognize that he's the son of the most famous sports figure in the area, not even after the father's name and face appear in every newspaper in the city and he's interviewed daily on ESPN. Credibility is not this film's strong suit.

A secondary plot tutors us and the Baker parents about the need for looking to family first and job second. A moral, after all, is obligatory in a family film. Tom is harried with his new coaching position and pressured to win games at all cost. Kate is harried with a promotional tour for her book. We can easily see where this is going.

While Kate is away for a few days, Tom must manage his job and the family by himself. As expected, all hell breaks loose. The kids carry on like wretched, uncontrollable brats, totally demolishing the house, puking on the floor, leaving every inch of inside floor space and outside lawn and garden cluttered with their junk, driving away the neighbors, and generally behaving in a manner wholly uncivilized, unconvincing, and unfunny. The kids take an instant dislike to the Kutcher character, and when he and their older sister come to help baby-sit, they knock him into a wading pool, take his clothes to dry, soak his shorts in meat juice, allow him to put them back on, and then sic the family dog on him. I suppose it could be considered funny to watch a dog going for a man's privates at the dinner table, but I thought it was silly, tasteless, and unbelievable in any kind of movie, much less a family film.

Finally, after an hour of nonsense and foolishness, the movie turns serious and sappy, apparently also a necessity in a wholesome, family picture. But none of it works. Martin gets one good scene: a eulogy he makes at the grave of a dead frog. It lasts maybe a minute. Basically, the film is about children who are so selfish they ensure their parents are as unhappy as the audience. I found the film at or perhaps slightly below the level of a run-of-the-mill television sitcom.

The movie is presented on flip sides of the same disc in an anamorphic widescreen measuring an approximate 1.74:1 ratio and a standard, 1.33:1, pan-and-scan modification. The P&S rendering cuts out about 25% of the screen image left and right, but as the Disney folks might say (even though this is a Fox production), it makes the movie more "family friendly."

While colors are bright, the delineation and detail are only ordinary, and image surfaces have a dull sheen to them. In fact, the brilliant hues are more brilliant than real life, indicating that this movie is more of a cartoon than a semblance of reality. There is also some minor yet visible grain that helps impart a slight grittiness to the screen, and facial hues are overemphasized. Although none of this is very serious, it keeps the picture quality from entering the highest ranks of state-of-the-art video.

Not much to comment on in terms of the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround sound. It works as best as can be expected. The stereo image is reasonably wide, the dynamic range is hardly called upon to do anything short of blasting some of the music by us, and the bass is adequate. The rear channels are used only for the reinforcement of musical ambience, which is probably more often than necessary. The film's musical score is loud, pounding, and relentlessly upbeat.

The primary bonus items are two audio commentaries, the first by director Shawn Levy and the second by the actors playing the Baker kids. Then, there's a five-minute featurette, "Director's Viewfinder: Creating a Fictional Family," that helps promote the film; a one-minute teaser for a new, live-action "Garfield" movie; and five deleted or extended scenes that can be played with or without the director's commentary. Twenty-eight scene selections complete the package, with English, French, and Spanish spoken languages, and English and Spanish subtitles.

Parting Shots:
I wish I could think of something nicer to say about this film because with its cast it really shouldn't have been as bad as it is. How about I say I liked it marginally better than I liked the same director's "Just Married"? Is that damning the new release with faint praise or what?

I suppose if you could get past the dreadful behavior of the children, the waste of Steve Martin's comic acting talents, and the film's lack of humor, you could say "Cheaper By the Dozen" was wholesome family entertainment with an uplifting, moral ending. Yes, you could say that. I won't.

By way of an aside, I see that director Levy is next slated to direct a prequel to "The Pink Panther," with Steve Martin as Inspector Clouseau. As a fan of the old Peter Sellers movies, I pray for a miracle.


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