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Dustin Putman

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Cheaper By The Dozen (2003)

Directed by Shawn Levy
Cast: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hilary Duff, Tom Welling, Piper Perabo, Forrest Landis, Ashton Kutcher, Richard Jenkins, Kevin Schmidt, Brent Kinsman, Shane Kinsman, Liliana Mumy, Alyson Stoner, Jacob Smith, Blake Woodruff, Morgan York, Alan Ruck, Paula Marshall, Steven Anthony Lawrence, Vanessa Bell Calloway, Amy Hill
2003 – 95 minutes
Rated: Rated PG (for language and some thematic elements).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, November 29, 2003.

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, "Cheaper 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 (Forrest 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 kids—15-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 in 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 Green 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."
© 2003 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman