Cheaper By the Dozen

(2003) * 1/2 Pg
99 min. 20th Century Fox. Director: Shawn Levy. Cast: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Piper Perabo, Tom Welling, Hilary Duff.

Cheaper By the Dozen--inspired by the book by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and a 1950 screenplay by Lamar Trotti--has all the comic sensibility of a food fight. In reality, food fights are almost always affectionate, which is not always the case for the choreographed chaos of Cheaper By the Dozen. Nevertheless, the lasting visual memories of the film are mostly athletically messy slapstick--Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt's brood of twelve splattered in their morning breakfast, family interloper Ashton Kutcher squealing as a dog goes to town on his crotch, and Martin, again, covered in all manner of goop, from more edibles to the eternally popular silly string.

Daddy Day Care fans, rejoice! Steve Martin has permanently joined the ranks of family films alongside his Bowfinger costar Eddie Murphy. If they could all be Parenthood or Shrek, I'd give a little, but these guys deserve better. Now that he's forty, can't they hire Keanu Reeves to do these, and leave our talent alone? For every one funny bit Martin throws in, he's required by the script to do twenty embarrassing scenes. Martin's most memorable bits--a "still got it" dance for Hunt and, for God's sake, an outtake in the credits--are overshadowed by the heavily promoted eyesore of Martin being flung into the air by an explosive inflatable ball pit. The lovable Hunt gets more of her patented improv sass into her scenes than Martin, who seems resigned to take the money and run back to his double life as a New Yorker darling.

The story, which relies on impossible contrivances to function (I know it's a kiddie movie; I'm just saying...), follows the Baker clan from chaotic bliss in smalltown Midland, Illinois to chaotic doldrums in Chicago suburb and university hub Evanston, Illinois. Though it's realistic to expect resistance from the settled children, who dread losing friends and facing new surroundings, it's a bit creepy to watch the whole family--mother Kate excluded--line up against father Tom's dream to coach a Division 1 football team. Alas, the unpleasant lion's share of the running time finds the pouty family making Tom miserable--as he steadily loses his grip and the love of his children--exactly when I suspect a real family would make an effort to get it together. About the time an appalled Oprah camera crew gets shifty and bolts, I entertained thoughts of doing the same.

In Animal House tradition, the Baker's stuffy and disapproving neighbors (Alan Ruck and Paula Marshall) have a kid who wears a pastel sweater over his shoulder. Marshall tut-tuts, "They're all going to end up on a milk carton," but her son can barely contain his glee at their free-to-be-you-and-me rampages. The Bakers, too, have a neglected child, whose cry for attention signals the movie's big climax. Against your better judgement, you may find yourself a little verklempt, but in hindsight, this old-as-the-hills sequence has the mechanical efficiency of the film's product placements, from Nike to Abercrombie and Fitch to Hilary Duff. Duff is intolerably bad in her mercifully small part, but gets her revenge by performing the end credit number "What Christmas Should Be." Cheaper By the Dozen is sticky sweet, and stealthy cynical.

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