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"CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN"
(2003) (Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt) (PG)

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QUICK TAKE:
Comedy: A husband and wife try to balance their burgeoning careers and their family of twelve kids when they move to a new town.
PLOT:
Tom (STEVE MARTIN) and Kate Baker (BONNIE HUNT) live in the small town of Midland where Tom is the successful Division III college football coach and Kate is trying her hand at writing a book. When they're not doing that, they're trying to raise their twelve kids as best they can. The oldest, Nora (PIPER PERABO) has already moved out and in with Hank (ASHTON KUTCHER) a self-absorbed TV commercial actor boyfriend.

The next oldest, Charlie (TOM WELLING) and Lorraine (HILARY DUFF), are high schoolers who aren't particularly enamored with living with the rest of their siblings. They include Jake (JACOB SMITH), Sarah (ALYSON STONER), Kevin (KEVIN G. SCHMIDT), Kim (MORGAN YORK), Jessica (LILIANA MUMY), Mike (BLAKE WOODRUFF) and twins Nigel and Kyle (BRENT & SHANE KINSMAN). Then there's Mark (FORREST LANDIS), the one Baker who's so unlike the others that his siblings call him "Fedex" since they claim he was delivered rather than born into their family.

When Tom's friend Shake Maguire (RICHARD JENKINS) offers him the prestigious job of coaching at their old college, he and Kate realize he can't pass on the opportunity. Accordingly, the kids reluctantly pack up their belongings and move to a new home in a new city.

With Kate's new book suddenly taking off and Tom being so busy with coaching, the family unity begins to suffer. From that point on, the parents must decide how to balance their professional and family responsibilities.

OUR TAKE: 4 out of 10
Years ago, I remember talking with a close friend as he recounted the trials and tribulations of raising three young boys, all quite close in age. As with most parents, he stated that the first one was a life-changing experience and was far tougher and more rewarding than he had imagined. When the second came along, however, he realized that raising one was much easier than he thought at the time. And by the time the third arrived, raising two seemed like a piece of cake in comparison.

I'm not sure how he would have felt had he and his wife continued on to four, eight or even twelve total kids but there are many families out there that do so. Their homes are loud and chaotic but full of love and that's the case with the Baker family.

Of course, this particular Baker's dozen is fictitious as they appear in the latest (large) family comedy, "Cheaper by the Dozen." Part "Parenthood," part "Daddy Day Care" meets "Home Alone" with some elements thrown in from "The Brady Bunch Movie," the film is lightweight entertainment that goes down easy, but certainly leaves a syrupy aftertaste that may turn bitter for some viewers.

If the film sounds familiar, it should as it first appeared with the same title in the 1950 Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy comedy. Considering the more than half century of cultural and familial changes, director Shawn Levy ("Just Married," "Big Fat Liar") and screenwriters Sam Harper ("Just Married," "Rookie of the Year") and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow ("Goodbye Lover," "Money Talks") only follow a semblance of the original's plot or characters.

What they end up with is a broadly played comedy that's more amusing than hilarious. It also occasionally steps back to partially address more serious contemporary issues such as two-income families, latch-key kids and how and whether to balance one's career and family. It's obvious that the filmmakers want to make us laugh and cry, but the results aren't as funny or poignant as in Ron Howard's far more successful "Parenthood."

Interestingly enough, both films feature Steve Martin ("Bringing Down the House," "Bowfinger") in the role of the patriarch, although this time around he doesn't have to deal with being in the middle the pack (Jason Robards played his father in that 1989 film).

I suppose there's nothing wrong with playing father figures in films where the plots center around family life and related issues, but it's a bit disappointing that the talented actor almost seems as if he's slumming here for a paycheck.

It doesn't help that the material isn't that good - from a comedic or dramatic standpoint -- and thus leaves him and the rest of the obviously large cast somewhat high and dry. Not surprisingly, some of the family member characters get shortchanged when it comes to screen time and a few of them are barely distinguishable from others in the clan.

Other than Forrest Landis (making his debut) who plays the black sheep of the family - the others call him FedEx for their belief of how he was delivered - the more prominent roles among the kids go to the older performers. Tom Welling (TV's "Smallville") plays the angry teenager who hates the family's new town and its school once they relocate for Martin's new job, while Hilary Duff ("Lizzie McGuire," "Agent Cody Banks") plays the standard teen obsessed with fashion.

Piper Perabo ("Lost and Delirious," "Coyote Ugly") plays the only one of the kids who's moved out, but the overall issue of her living with her self-absorbed TV commercial actor boyfriend - played by the un-credited Ashton Kutcher ("My Boss' Daughter," "Dude, Where's my Car?") - feels contrived and forced at best.

It's really only present to allow for some younger kid-based practical joke shenanigans that will likely have real parents groaning for giving their kids ideas (Note: Make sure you keep the raw hamburger on a fridge shelf the kids can't reach).

Bonnie Hunt ("Return to Me," "The Green Mile") plays their mom who turns out to be as equally busy as Martin's football coach father, and the film really is more about them than the kids. The two certainly make the film easy to watch, but I just wish the material they're forced to play were better than it is.

Everything is predictable, much of the plot is episodic, some of the dialogue is too on the nose, and many of the kids are just one-note characters designed to play off their one notable and central characteristic. I supposed that's somewhat unavoidable with such a large cast of characters, but a little more depth on the part of all involved would have made the film better, more enjoyable and believable.

Less critical viewers or simply parents looking for some PG-rated entertainment for their family probably won't be as hung up on some issues as I am and might just enjoy the offerings quite a bit. It certainly isn't a chore or taxing to sit through, but in my opinion it could have been far better, both from a comedic and dramatic standpoint. "Cheaper by the Dozen" rates as a 4 out of 10.




Reviewed November 28, 2003 / Posted December 25, 2003


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