By Glenn Erickson
With a sequel on the way, Fox's Steve Martin vehicle has been given a DVD retread and repromotion. The 2003 comedy isn't offensive but neither is it interesting or special in any way. The most bland sit-com 'family film' situations are regurgitated for the umpteenth time in what qualifies as a family-safe entertainment, or at least what Hollywood and the MPAA judge to be family-safe.
The original novel became the source for two or three Fox films beginning in 1950 with Myrna Loy and Clifton Webb that are good but not as popular as other comic and serious looks at life and hardship: Life with Father, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and I Remember Mama. This new picture carries the same original authors' names but beyond that has no real connection. The thin plot is an excuse to concentrate on the chaos of a family with twelve quarreling, disaster prone children.
Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt are live in a designer country home on acres of property in rural Illinois, yet are unfulfilled. She's given up her writing career and he's likewise accepted coaching for a High School football team rather than the big leagues. Life with the kids is an unending stream of easily-digested sight gags. The cheerful Martin directs normal family routine like the backstage of a big show in full panic mode. About five of the kids are given "issues" when the entire household moves to Chicago and into another to-die-for house in a tony neighborhood (actually Hancock Park, about six blocks from Savant headquarters). The script alternates between light-dramatic moments and repetitive bouts of cute "kid action," more often than not involving food fights, vomit and dirty tricks. A formulaic music montage comes up every reel or so. The kids fight over who gets what room, or are ostracized in their new schools. The hard content are set pieces involving 'wacky' action, like the pet frog that hops into a big bowl of scrambled eggs and turns breakfast into a big mess (ha ha) or the grotesquely stupid hijinks that ensue when the kids soak the underwear of a disliked young man in raw meat so the dog will attack his privates. The comedy never rises above the level of a food fight. Even Martin gets into the act, splattering apples with a baseball bat.
Martin's oldest son is an unhappy school transplant who wants to go back to see his old girlfriend. A younger teen girl is fashion conscious and likes to apply lip gloss; she approves of the Chicago move because of the better wardrobe dad's new salary will afford. Most of the other kids aren't given much personality -- one does little but play the clarinet -- while odd-kid-out Mark (Forrest Landis) feels like an outcast in his own house.
Cheaper by the Dozen avoids raunch per se yet deals with a few "modern" situations that many parents will find offensive. The eldest daughter (Piper Perabo) is 22 and living with her boyfriend, a narcissistic actor written specifically to become the butt of jokes. He asks Martin and Hunt when they are going to "pop another one out" and thus takes his place beside the insufferable new neighbor lady who thinks having twelve kids is irresponsible. Piper and her boyfriend want to sleep together when they visit, which Martin considers a serious no-no: "This house is G-Rated." Like all the other rules in this house, it can be ignored with impunity.
The big conflict comes when Martin takes a job coaching a big Chicago football team and Hunt takes off to promote a book. Although they're getting the chance at their dreams the script sides with the selfish and chronically misbehaving kids, taking the attitude that Mom and Dad belong at home. The clueless script offends by having the nerve to preach the meaning of responsibility. The kids basically do whatever they want and are allowed the freedom to talk back with whatever attitude they choose; much of their unbelievable dialogue is adult smart-talk meant to be funny because cute little darlings and sassy teens are saying it.
The situation is resolved in a time-honored, utterly worthless fashion: Home life falls apart while Hunt tries to promote her book; Martin can't keep the kids from mischief or out of the principal's office. School fighting over family honor is seen as good, a lousy lesson for inner city kids. Martin's new bosses demand he either give more time to his job or resign. Finally, a fake crisis comes up when the troubled Mark runs away from home. It all comes down to the parents just realizing that their dreams are out of reach, if they want to raise their kids properly. They end in fake smiles but any attempt to take the film at all seriously makes it seem depressing. Cheaper by the Dozen is handsomely shot and fluidly directed, but it's really low-grade, fast-food moviemaking.
Fox's DVD of Cheaper by The Dozen Baker's Dozen Edition is a beautiful enhanced transfer with sparkling clear audio, just what one would expect from a new studio film. The package back touts 13 All-New special features; we aren't really counting but I keep coming up with nine. Seven actually, because one of the extras is a promo for Cheaper by The Dozen 2 and another is listed as "More deleted/extended scenes." A group of four featurettes contain promo-quality behind-the-scenes looks at the filming. Storyboard -to-screen comparisons do the obvious with a couple of action comedy highlights. Director Shawn Levy and "the kids" each get a separate commentary; kids might like hearing what the young actors have to say about being in the movie. Finally, there is a Director's Viewfinder featurette, that amounts to an extended version of the movie, presumably with some of the deleted/extended footage cut back in.
reviewed December Third, 2005