½*/**** Image A- Sound B Extras C
starring Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Piper Perabo, Tom Welling
screenplay by Craig Titley, based on the book by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
directed by Shawn Levy
by Walter Chaw Walter Lang's 1950 version of Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey's semi-autobiographical Cheaper by the Dozen ends with patriarch Frank (Clifton Webb) kicking the bucket, and seat-warmer Shawn Levy's (fresh off the triumph Just Married) 2003 adaptation of the same ends with patriarch Tom (Steve Martin) capitulating to his simpering children. Such is the decline of courage in western popular culture that even sickening cultural artifacts like Lang's Cheaper by the Dozen out-balls an updated version fifty-three years hence. Infantile regression the rule of the day in a climate increasingly desperate to shoehorn its post-modern anti-narratives into comfortable family fare, it's interesting to consider that the original was already seen as something of a throwback to Depression-era family values at the time of its release. In conflict with the popular wag that people are stupider now than they've ever been, the excrescent original was also defended as good old-fashioned escapist fare. People are exactly as stupid as they've always been, it seems, but the lords of our popular entertainment have been noticeably castrated.
Tom and Kate (Bonnie Hunt) are the parents of twelve adorable biological children, their amazing biological profligacy matched only by the good humour they bring to raising an empire of cuddly moppets. Tom gets his dream job as head coach of some imaginary college program and moves the bounty of his loins to a humongous mansion on the university's dime, leading to a lot of belly-aching, undeveloped "new kid" bully subplots, and what would be the final nail in Hilary Duff's career if the world that made her a star in the first place made any kind of sense. Without plot, the picture is king among the Cuisinart school of filmmaking, wherein ingredients for popular pictures past are ground together into a fine, non-descript gruel. Its alleged humour is entirely predicated on the amount that you enjoy cute kids acting out, a dog attacking Ashton Kutcher (deserved, but a gag executed better in American Wedding), and Martin continuing to give lie to the belief that he is a talented, intelligent man.
Cheaper by the Dozen is heavy with irony, from a title that describes the rationale for the appearance of this and Daddy Day Care in the same calendar year to a resolution that finds all the big talk about chasing dreams and living to potential compacted into a patently dishonest resolution high on schmaltz and low on explanation. How is it that after the children browbeat their parents into giving up their careers (he's not home enough (except that he is), she has the gall to take two weeks away to promote her book), with Tom's career the link to their new home, they appear to still be living in that home after the heart-warming surrenders? How is it that Tom Welling, the WB's new "Smallville" heartthrob, finds himself in the David from "Eight is Enough" role (another family drama coloured by the death of a parent), while the rest of the non-descript kinder fill the stock roles of pre-lesbian, frog-loving freak, princess, twins, and rabble?
The idea is that when all the kids blame dad for ruining their lives by improving their lives in every measurable way and bending himself in half to provide for them, they're blameless for their adorable misbehaviour and do, in fact, have a better grasp of how to engineer their upbringing than their parents. Matched with a dreadful late-John Hughes score by Christophe Beck, all industrious walking horns cut with adult contemporary favourites, Cheaper by the Dozen is from the I Am Sam/Irreconcilable Differences school of kid welfare in which seven year-olds are Solomon and fifty-seven year-olds are dangerous, self-centered naïfs interested in the disintegration of their families. Far from teaching traditional family values, pictures like this declare the child as emperor--worse, after ceding decision-making to a clamor of whines, the parents appear to suffer no fiscal/emotional setback. It's another one of those movies where everything the evil characters say is absolutely true. The defining moment of the picture is a toss up between Kutcher's speech about just being a lousy actor nailed to a pretty face, and the opening credit sequence that shows Martin jogging with sheep. Once upon a time, Martin would exploit the potential of that scene--now he's just running with the flock.
"Of all the things I've done, of this I'm the most proud," proclaims director Shawn Levy on his commentary track for Cheaper by the Dozen, and suddenly I inventory his disasterpieces--Big Fat Liar, Just Married, and this--and wonder at the audacity of his hyperbole. Indeed, between Levy's tear-jerking tale of how, after screening Just Married, the powers that be pegged him as the perfect captain for this ship and his seemingly-genuine delight with filler shots (as well as every single member of his cast and crew), 98 minutes of hearing him talk makes for an even more gruelling experience than just watching the movie, I'm surprised to say. The story he tells of how he convinced Tom Welling to forego larger roles (like in The Fog, I guess) to learn how to act, damnit, is particularly painful, and for the first time ever, I wished that the loquacious lead of a commentary would start narrating the action. "I'm aware that the movie vacillates wildly between demographic appeal and, frankly, that's the point," says Levy around what I imagine to be a concerned and thoughtful brow--something that answers why his next collaboration with Steve Martin, The Pink Panther, has been shelved until sometime next year. It's too soon, is what I'm trying to say, for Levy to call so many of his scenes in this film "classic"--though I should tell you that I'm doubtful it'll ever be the right time.
His yakker remains preferable to the second commentary, however, which features all the kids in the cast (well, not Hilary Duff) talking over one another in a manner you'd find adorable in your own children and nowhere else. Not terribly scene-specific, the whole thing is like an entire Boy Scout troupe telling you about their jamboree at the same time. On the bright side, being forced to watch this film three times has engendered in me a strong urge to have a vasectomy. Onward, eleven (non-anamorphic) deleted scenes with optional Levy commentary show that there was actually discussion of how to shorten the film and that there was some kind of rudimentary awareness of things working and not. Levy's comments are generally along the lines of "hate to lose it, had to lose it" inanity, with more weird trainspotting and references to his exceptionally limited, in every sense of the word, oeuvre. He goes on, too, about the genius of all the ad-libbing in the film (including, in the main commentary, the hijinks the brats get into). Sort of leaves one speechless, doesn't it? A storyboard-to-screen comparison of "Frogs & Eggs" and "Dylan's Birthday Party" is exactly what it sounds like--which leads us pleasantly into our nightmarish featurettes portion of the disc.
First up is "Frogs & Eggs" (8 mins.), more on the "classic" scene wherein a frog jumps on the family scrambled eggs one morning. Levy looks a little like Tim Burton (but with a glaze of stupid in his beady peepers) and we're gifted with more shots of the storyboard, a regurgitation of Levy's commentary (and the kids' commentary, too), and some B-roll shit of Duff acting like a prima donna and Levy begging the children to be quiet so they can work on continuity. You heard me. The old maxim of not working with kids and animals is expanded herein to Levys and hydraulic cannons. Who could care about this? I don't have the first inkling of an inkling. "Dylan's Birthday" (8 mins.) is exactly like the frog featurette (and, sure enough, Levy immediately references back to it--quite the name-dropper, that one) in that it's an extended look at a birthday party scene that fails to point out similarities to a moment from '80s slasher Mother's Day. Levy tirelessly tells the same things over and over again; I had to wonder if his knees and mouth were sore from doling out all that praise. "Director's Viewfinder: Creating a Fictional Family" (15 mins.) is a more standard making-of featurette that begins, portentously, with a title card that reads: "In the beginning..." Herein, Levy regurgitates more of his commentary, calling the film "ambitious" while modestly proclaiming the project a "nightmare for a director" and boasting proudly that he had an intuitive connection with the piece as well as complete directorial control, and that the finished product is as he envisioned it. He pontificates, he blushes, he bats his eyelashes, he uses the term "bedlam" a few times, and never for a minute does he betray a sense of himself or the degree of garbage he's created. "Critters" (12 mins.) focuses on the dog and the frog. Man oh man.
Because this is the kind of film that it is, I suspected and was rewarded for that suspicion that there would be an Easter Egg on this thing. Sure enough, when you push "right" from the bottom choice on the special features menu, you find an "Ashton Commercial" (1 mins.) with optional commentary wherein Levy goes on about how he's not a "visual" director and shooting Ashton in his skivvies was a primo opportunity for him to experiment. You do the joke, I'm tired. An "Inside Look" (2 mins.) featurette is a piece of shit promo for the piece of shit sequel to this piece of shit, bolstered by an actual scene (2 mins.) from said piece of shit sequel that finds Martin's knock-kneed pins shoehorned into a wetsuit. It's hard to believe that something as thoughtful as L.A. Story (or even Shopgirl) came from this man. The film itself sports a handsome 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer that seems a little soft and grainy, but for what it's worth, I didn't mind that, as it preserved something of a filmic quality. The DD 5.1 audio is predictably workmanlike for a picture of this budget, inclination, and timing. Originally published: November 24, 2005.