Fifty-odd years ago, Clifton Webb, Myrna Loy, and Jeanne
Crain starred in a movie about the Gilbreth family, a 1910s
household of one father, one mother, and twelve kids. Even back then,
twelve was quite a remarkable family. In 2003, it’s downright
politically incorrect. The re-makers of Cheaper By The Dozen,
recognizing this, begin with a lengthy justification for Tom and Kate
Baker’s big family. They lose a lot of goodwill for their film
right there. After all, a movie should have the courage of its convictions,
not start off by making excuses for itself.
It’s too bad, too, because, at least initially, Cheaper
By The Dozen was rather promising. Opening scenes of the family
at home in Podunkville show a fine ear for household dialogue. It’s
all there: the mild sexual banter and conversational shorthand of
long-married spouses; the Daria-like comments from teens who apparently
are just visiting your house from their real home in IronyLand; the
run-through of all the names when you can’t call up the name
of the kid standing in front of you.
Then it degenerates into a formulaic family movie, complete with
generic conflict and “heart-warming” resolution. Tom (Martin)
is a football coach at Podunk U. Kate (Hunt) is a former sports
reporter who has just completed a book on parenting. They and their
great kids live in a great huge house in a great small town and everything’s
great, when an old college chum (Jenkins) offers Daddy the
coaching job at their alma mater. The job is a dream come true for
Tom, plus it comes with a hefty raise and an absolute mansion of a
house in some large, unnamed Illinois city. Woo-hoo, right? Wrong,
the kids don’t want to move. Well, at least they’re not
(mostly) materialistic. Then, celebrity comes knocking, when Kate’s
book explodes and her agent gets her a book tour.
So now we’ve got one dad, 11 recalcitrant kids (the eldest
lives in her own, cherished apartment), and 11 (or however many it
is on a team) football players. Can Tom manage both? Cheaper By
The Dozen perpetuates the TV/movie device of the hapless dad.
(In this it couldn’t be farther from the original movie, whose
dad was massively competent.) This version makes me want to grab the
nearest man I can find and smack him on behalf of his entire sex.
Besides, it’s not true. Well okay, it’s much less true
than it was before more men became more involved in active parenting.
And it’s also interesting that there’s speculation in
the newspaper about Tom’s ability to manage work and family.
I mean, what kind of slow-news-day town is this? At least this time,
the question is being asked of a man, instead of a woman.
One has to wonder why Tom doesn’t call on a grandparent or
two to pitch in while Kate’s away. Unable to secure a nanny,
he instead calls home his oldest daughter Nora (Perabo), who
is less than thrilled to leave her apartment and live-in boyfriend
(an uncredited Kutcher). The younger Baker kids devise various
tortures for the boyfriend, including a prank that borrows a bit from
Rabelais to make him unusually attractive to dogs. All this
leads up to the familial crisis that requires all of the Bakers to
recall what’s really important and to pull together as Team
Baker. And someone has to make a sacrifice.
Cheaper By The Dozen is just such a contrived, generic movie.
If you’ve seen a holiday family movie, believe me, you could
have written this one. In fact, I wish you had. At least then, it
would likely have included a moment of unpredictability. Instead we
get a long, excellent ad for birth control.
If you’re truly interested in cinematic depictions of large
families, see Jonathan Karsh’s documentary, My Flesh