Review by Dustin Putman
½ star out of 4
Based on the book by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey,
"Cheaper by the Dozen" is an unmitigated, end-of-the-year lump of
coal that should put to rest all of the unwarranted backlash against
"The Cat in the Hat." A chaotic, horridly conceived, inconceivably
one-dimensional product, "C heaper by the Dozen" wants to be a quality
family film about the trials and ultimate joys of raising twelve children,
yet holds not a single believable or genuine moment in all of its
95 minutes. That it wins an instant spot on my "Worst of 2003" list goes without saying.
Narrated at the beginning and end by Kate Baker (Bonnie Hunt), matriarch
of the Baker clan, she explains how she and husband Thomas (Steve
Martin) have arrived at being the parents of an even dozen children,
ages four to twenty-two. When Thomas is offered the well-paying job
of his dreams as a college football coach, he packs the family up
and moves them to a bigger house in a nearby Chicago suburb. All is
well, if constantly hectic, for the Baker's, until Kate's book, entitled
"Cheaper by the Dozen," is given a publishing offer. With her away
for several weeks to do publicity, Thomas finds himself way in over
his head, trying to manage his coaching and his children all by himself.
Directed by Shawn Levy (2003's "Just Married"), "Cheaper by the Dozen"
purports to being a realistic, humor-filled look at raising kids,
yet goes so far in the opposite direction it might as well be set
on a different planet. Written by Craig Titley, the film rings with
a resounding falseness from start to finish. The characters, including
all but one of the children, are Screenwriting 101 rejects, paper-thin
and unctuous with no discernible identity outside of one or two character
traits each. In some cases, there isn't even that much development.
Director Shawn Levy's main technique, used to the point of sheer despicable
annoyance, is to round the twelve kids up and have them speak all
at the same time, creating nothing but noise and inertia from a plot standpoint.
The younger Baker kids mostly just run around and wreak havoc, unable
to form even a plausible sibling bond with their co-stars. The sole
exception is outcast Mark (F orrest Landis), nicknamed "Fed Ex," who
doesn't seem to fit in and is relegated to the attic bedroom with
his pet turtle. No attention is paid to him by anyone, not even father
Thomas, until he runs away from home. The potentially poignant and
authentic representation of Mark, well played by newcomer Forrest
Landis, is all but destroyed in a truly hateful, condescending climax
in which a father-son hug and a few unconvincing, one-line sibling
remarks seemingly solve all of his problems.
The three oldest Baker kids15-year-old Lorraine (Hilary Duff), 17-year-old
Charlie (Tom Welling), and 22-year-old Nora (Piper Perabo)are no better
developed, mostly coming off as selfish, whiny nitwits. For example,
when Thomas is at his lowest point, having trouble tending to his
nine younger children by himself, he has a heart-to-heart with Lorraine,
explaining to her that he is going to need to find a baby-sitter to
help out. In a smart film, one that did not hold its audience i n
contempt, Lorraine would have spoken up and offered to help her father
herself. Instead, the 15-year-old's clear ability to do so is never
brought up, and Lorraine flightily remains content to stay in her
room and put on make-up. Meanwhile, Charlie basically broods about
switching schools and varsity football teams, while it takes Nora
far too long to realize that her model-actor boyfriend, Hank (Ashton
Kutcher), is as vain as they come. In actuality, and certainly not
intentionally, Ashton Kutcher (2003's "My Boss's Daughter") makes
Mark far more mature and likable than any of the Baker's until the
screenplay conveniently turns him into a walking stereotype.
As parents Thomas and Kate, Steve Martin (2003's "Bringing Down the
House") and Bonnie Hunt (1999's "The G reen Mile") escape mostly unscathed,
attempting to bring a level of balance to a family that has none.
Martin, usually very funny, has no successful comic material to work
with, while Hunt plays the straight man. As Lorraine, Hilary Duff
(2003's "The Lizzie McGurie Movie") seems to be playing the same bubbly
character she is quickly and tiresomely becoming known for, only with
more exaggeration and less charm. And as eldest siblings Charlie and
Nora, Tom Welling (TV's "Smallville") and Piper Perabo (2000's "Coyote
Ugly") are talented actors who are criminally wasted in one-note parts.
Syrupy, dumb, and desperately unfunny (I laughed once, and that was
during the end-credits blooper reel), "Cheaper by the Dozen" is the
worst family film of the year, a sub-sitcom-level failure as abhorrent
as it is half-baked. With no character worth liking , no story development
even remotely surprising, and no comedy or drama creating any true
emotion within the viewer, the film is simply interminable. Even the
final scene, set at Christmas dinner, is poorly constructed. As Thomas
looks around the table at the faces of his children, the intention
was obviously to show how happy he is with his life, his marriage,
and his "darling" kids. As edited, however, the final expression on
Thomas' face appears to be one of confusing distaste. Maybe Steve
Martin forgot the camera was rolling, and was just then realizing
what a cinematic mess he had gotten himself into. Such a theory makes
a whole lot more sense than anything found in "Cheaper by the Dozen."
Copyright © 2003 Dustin Putman