Who was in charge of Cheaper by the Dozen? The credits claim it’s directed by a fellow named Shawn Levy, stars Steve Martin, and employs several screenwriters, including two who worked on Toy Story. And yet, even with these many hands on deck, the family-centric Dozen is a lesson in absentee parenting.
Tom and Kate Baker (Martin and Bonnie Hunt) are trying to balance the raising of their 12 children with new developments in their careers: he is a football coach whose new high-profile offer requires a move, and she is a writer whose new high-profile book requires a two-week tour. By the time the movie arrives at its basic premise (Tom is stranded with the kids), the actors are left with little to do but hustle from scene to scene: pratfall, pathos, hug, repeat.
Cheaper by the Dozen is supposed to be about the joys and difficulties of a large family, but its clutter only makes us feel that we are spread too thin by watching it. This may be because we’re not just watching Martin and Hunt, but erstwhile hot young thing Piper Perabo, dreamy Superboy Tom Welling, reigning tween queen Hilary Duff, and nine young newcomers who range from game to grating. The family members are identifiable as such not because the actors have a particularly chummy rapport, but because the younger ones travel in a pack (then again, they might also be identified as Duff’s entourage).
We are meant to sympathize, I think, with the 12 children, feeling neglected when both parents want to take separate shots at career glory; when Kate goes on her book tour during football season, chaos reigns. Fair enough, but not one character asks what seems a basic question: don’t any of the Baker children—many of whom are well past nine or 10—have the self-control to curb at least some of their unruliness? It’s as if their self-sufficiency or ingenuity has been ruled out in advance, except when it comes to revenge.
I understand that in the world of a broad comedy, the obvious solution—kids behaving with even a modicum of maturity—isn’t exactly rife with big laughs. But I suspect there could have been some decent comedy wrung out of, say, the children’s attempts to take care of themselves spinning wildly out of control. Instead, everything is out of control more or less instantly, apparently to expedite the process of parents and children whining at each other. An early breakfast scene with both parents, for example, isn’t much different than a later sequence with Tom cooking dinner alone, except that at breakfast, the destruction is somewhat more efficient. But the children’s complaints increase, and dopey slapstick curdles into mawkish and depressing drama in the movie’s misbegotten second half.
Before this rough enforcement of family values, Cheaper by the Dozen is affably watchable. Martin and Hunt make a natural couple; their casting is effective shorthand for “loving, good-humored family.” Ashton Kutcher does a funny bit of self-parody playing a vain actor, boyfriend to the eldest Baker (Perabo, who showed a light comic touch in Rocky and Bullwinkle , and conceals it well here).
Even during moments of relative mirth, though, there are signs that no one was exerting any control behind the camera. Levy shoots big “comedy” moments in ungainly close-ups, that is, he displays an affinity, but not a talent, for slapstick. When Tom swings from a chandelier, the camera is right there swinging with him, focusing on his face. Showing it from a distance might have been a lot funnier, as a good pratfall at least has a fighting chance for low humor; mugging is almost never funny.
This sloppiness indicates the film’s parenting philosophy: just be there, and everything will be okay. A child’s belief that a parent can fix things just by showing up can be quite touching, but it’s too complicated an idea for this movie to explore. The needs of the Baker children are depressingly literal-minded: they need parents to make 12 lunches and tell them not to break everything in the house. The movie seems to endorse this attitude, expecting that the audience will feel no different, or mistake its platitudes (family good, career bad) for wisdom.