Cheaper by the Dozen

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“Cheaper by the Dozen” is a proud proponent of what they used to call “family values,” before that phrase came to be used only ironically. Its central characters, the Bakers, are a family with 12 children, none of whom, not even the teenagers, ever expresses embarrassment over being from such an unusually large brood. The film declares family to be more important than anything else, and demonstrates vividly how difficult things can get when one parent is absent. The grown-up daughter who visits home may bring her boyfriend, but she is not permitted to share a bedroom with him.

Normally, a family like this would be the butt of jokes, the ultra-religious next-door neighbors, like the Flanderses on “The Simpsons.” But not here. The Bakers never mention religion; they had a dozen kids because, well, they love kids; and everyone manages to stay clean, well-adjusted and decent. They are an ordinary family, except in their numbers. The freak family, in fact, is the Bakers’ upscale neighbors the Shenks, who only have ONE kid, and he’s an over-protected basket case.

Sharing a title and almost nothing else with an old book, play and 1952 film, “Cheaper by the Dozen” is light and charming and a perfect movie to take the kids to. Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt, two of the most likable actors I know of, play Tom and Kate Baker, college sweethearts who always wanted a big family and who got it in spades. Their oldest, Nora (Piper Perabo), is 22 and out of the house; their youngest are twin boys, Nigel and Kyle (Brent and Shane Kinsman), age 4. The gang in between runs the gamut: rebellious teen Charlie (Tom Welling), shallow teen Lorraine (Hilary Duff), tomboy Sarah (Alyson Stoner), chubby Henry (Kevin G. Schmidt), misfit Mark (Forrest Landis), hockey player Jake (Jacob Smith), and a bunch of others with enough personality quirks to differentiate them from their siblings.

Tom is offered his dream job of coaching a Division I college football team, but it means moving the family from rural Midland, Ill., to a nice Chicago suburb, and it means he suddenly has less time to spend with the kids. Almost simultaneously, Kate is given a shot at her dream, too: The book she wrote about raising 12 kids is being published, and she’s being sent on a publicity tour. Can Tom, who is already becoming an absentee father, handle a football team AND the kids while she’s gone?

This is a film whose plot devices are old but whose performances are fresh and full of life. Martin and Hunt are both on familiar ground. His overwhelmed-but-easy-going dad bit comes from “Parenthood” (1989), and she has her harried-but-quick-witted mom thing down to a science from her current TV sitcom, not to mention her turn in “Stolen Summer” (2002), the little-seen film that was the product of HBO’s first “Project Greenlight.” Hunt, in particular, is a glowing presence in “Cheaper by the Dozen,” firing off her zingers in a manner both sharp and motherly.

Among the children, the performances are not cloying or irritating, which is a high compliment for child actors. They are cute, sweet and/or mischievous, as the situation requires. (Hilary Duff, at 16, still qualifies as a child, I guess, which makes her shrill, self-aware performance an exception to what I just said.)

The film’s overall appeal is in the details, most precisely in what lesser films would have included that this one does not. Two of the kids vomit, but we’re only subjected to a brief glimpse of the actual stuff. There’s not a fart joke to be found anywhere, setting it apart from virtually every other family film of the past five years. Tom, busy with work, neglects his kids in the traditional ways, except that we are spared the usually inevitable scene of him missing an important baseball game or piano recital. In a similar vein, though Mrs. Shenk (Paula Marshall) and Tom’s old friend Shake (Richard Jenkins) clearly have a disdain for children, there is no scene where they get their “hilarious” comeuppance via having goop dumped on their heads or by falling into a mud puddle.

The film is credited to four writers. Alec Sokolow and Joel Cohen have “Toy Story” (1995) to their credit, as well as next year’s sure-to-suck “Garfield” film. Sam Harper wrote the charming “Rookie of the Year” (1993) and this year’s modestly entertaining “Just Married.” Craig Titley, rounding out the bunch, sadly has “See Spot Run” and “Scooby-Doo” (2002) to his debit. What does it all mean? Nothing, I suppose, except that we have four writers who will not win Academy Awards but who can slap together a crowd-pleaser when called upon to do so, and some of those crowd-pleasers are actually sorta good.

The director is Shawn Levy, whose last two films, “Just Married” and “Big Fat Liar” (2002), also were better than you’d expect and also had a child-like charm to them. (I praised “Just Married” for having a smattering of family values, too.) Here, he steps it up a notch. The point of the whole film is that one’s family is more important than anything else, both as a support system and as a source of comedy. We see wholesome entertainment fairly often, but it’s rare, and therefore refreshing, to see a film that is not just squeaky-clean in content, but in its very philosophy. The fact that it’s also a funny, warm, entertaining film is almost just icing on the cake.

Note: Since I am a Mormon from a close family, it’s no surprise that a film celebrating close families resonates with me. I took special note of this comment made by Tom Baker, which serves as the film’s thesis statement: “If I screw up raising my kids, nothing I achieve will matter much.” Compare that with Mormon church leader David O. McKay’s famous quote, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” I doubt the screenwriters cribbed from Pres. McKay; more likely, it’s a universal truth that they happened to phrase in a similar way. But it’s an interesting connection, either way.

B+ (1 hr., 38 min.; PG, some mild crude humor.)

In 2012, I reconsidered this movie for my Re-Views column at Film.com.

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