Laughs are 'Cheaper by the Dozen'

Steve Martin, co-stars deliver family comedy

Movie Reviews

December 25, 2003|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Cheaper by the Dozen is equal parts fantasy and cautionary tale, a film that manages to be uplifting and off-putting simultaneously - fortunately, more the former than the latter.

The movie is based (loosely) on a popular 1948 book of the same title, about a New Jersey family whose size (12 children) humorously thwarted the efficiency-expert father's attempts to run his house like a factory. That story was made into a film in 1950, starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy.

This modern update, with the father transformed into a football coach, suffers by losing any sense of inventiveness and playing the same old notes when it comes to the family-vs.-career dilemma. In Hollywood, at least, the two are always incompatible.

But the movie gets considerable comic mileage out of its strong cast. It charms its way into the soul by steadfastly insisting that human behavior is, at worst, benign, and at best, always properly rewarded (the good are blessed, the bad get their comeuppance). And it stresses the value of family without presenting it as a cure for everything that ails you.

Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt are Tom and Kate Baker, and a cast of appealing child, adolescent and young-adult actors play their 12 children. Tom and Kate, we are told in Hunt's voiceover narration, always wanted a big family, and so methodically begat themselves one (that Hunt hardly looks like a woman who's borne 12 children - including two sets of twins - is a leap you'll just have to make).

As the movie opens, the Bakers are living a bucolic, if frenetic, life in rural Midland, Ill., when a wrench gets thrown into their carefully planned works. Tom, a veteran football coach at a tiny college, gets his chance for the big time - an offer to coach a Division 1 university in Chicago. Convincing himself that this is the best move for him and his family, he accepts, and the Bakers move to the big, bad city.

Things don't go well. Their neighbors are snobs. Everyone at the kids' new schools treats them like hayseeds. And Tom discovers that overseeing a 12-child family and a 40-man college football team simultaneously is essentially impossible.

Things go even less well when Kate's book, a memoir titled - what else? - Cheaper by the Dozen, gets published and she leaves on a two-week book tour. As in every family, Mom is the true general, the one who ensures that chaos doesn't reign; without her, things look pretty bleak.

Meanwhile, several festering issues threaten the family from within. Oldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo) is dating a narcissistic pretty boy (Ashton Kutcher) who is far too self-absorbed to care about anything resembling a family. Daughter Lorraine (teen-queen Hilary Duff) could be on the verge of breaking a nail. Oldest son Charlie (Tom Welling) is on the cusp of rebelling, at a time when his parents are least able to handle it. And another son, Mark (Forrest Landis), is finding that the only friend (or family member) willing to listen to him is his pet frog.

The mood of Cheaper by the Dozen is determinedly light; nothing about the script hints of complexity. This may be why some things seem not only unlikely but also out of character for the film. Why, for instance, do loving parents Tom and Kate never reprimand their children for constantly referring to one brother as FedEx, because he doesn't fit in with everyone else? And why, when Tom is trying to find a baby sitter, does he keep telling services he has 12 children that need to be watched? (One has already moved out of the house.)

Still, this is the kind of movie you want to cut some slack, and the kind that will reward you for the forbearance. Its underlying message, that love ought to be a constant even in dysfunctional families, may not always ring true, but certainly should.

Cheaper by the Dozen

Starring Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt

Directed by Shawn Levy

Released by 20th Century Fox

Rated PG (language and some thematic elements)

Time 98 minutes

Sun score

***

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