Judge Bill Treadway is very glad he isn't a part of a 12-child family, especially this 12-child family.
Fun and laughs by the dozen!
A surprise box office smash upon its Christmas 2003 release, Cheaper by the Dozen is an entertaining but uneven family film. It continues the comedic comeback of Steve Martin, which began with Bowfinger. It also has genuine heart in between the mayhem.
The $130 million dollar hit has been given a fairly quick video release by 20th Century Fox. Does the film work on DVD as well as it did on the big screen?
Facts of the Case
Tom Baker (Steve Martin, The Jerk, Bowfinger) and his wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt, Return to Me, Jerry Maguire) have devoted their life to raising a large family. Twelve kids to be exact. Life in Midland, Illinois is uneventful and nice. One day, Tom is offered a Division I coaching job at a large state university. After a reluctant move, Kate receives the news that her novel has been set for publication. The sole catch is that she will have to go to New York and begin a lengthy promotional tour.
With eldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo, Lost and Delirious, Coyote Ugly) otherwise busy and eldest son Charlie (Tom Welling, Smallville) moping about the girl he left behind, Tom is stuck. He decides to handle things himself while concentrating on his coaching duties. Faced with a rabid team at work and a group of hellraisers at home, Tom stretches himself far too thin.
Director Shawn Levy is quoted in the press materials as saying his film is "a love letter to the zaniness of large families." He must have been watching a different film than I. Except for the final ten minutes, the love isn't there. There's anger and dysfunction.
Thus lays my biggest problem with Cheaper by the Dozen.The dim view of a large familial unit as dysfunctional and out-of-control is on display throughout. It's a viewpoint I'm getting very tired of seeing in family films these days. While it is true that siblings argue, few carry on the way this brood does. The youngest ones are terrors, but at least they have their youth as an excuse. As for the three oldest children, not one of them is likable or sympathetic. Plus, they're lazy! There's no excuse that one of them can't help their father around the house. It only inspired anger and outrage in me as I watched it.
Dear readers, as you can tell, I did not like this movie as an accurate representation of a family. As a crude comedy, it succeeds. I'd be lying if I said I didn't laugh. There are some monster laughs in this film, particularly the fate of Hank (Ashton Kutcher) and his beloved car. Writers Sam Harper, Joel Cohen, Craig Titley, and Alec Sokolow know how to craft and pay off a sustained comic sequence. Unfortunately, it is not funny enough. There are moments for great comedy that they allow to pass by. Sentiment is hammered home via piledriver. The film's dramatic left turn is unconvincing in light of the unpleasant moments earlier. The sense of plotting is less than stellar, even by the low standards of modern family films. Don't expect this film to bear any resemblance to the Frank Gilbreth Jr./Ernestine Gilbreth Carey novel. [Editor's Note: The book was autobiographical, detailing the authors' experiences growing up as two of the twelve children of efficiency experts Frank and Lillian Gilbreth.] Don't expect it to be like the 1950 Clifton Webb/Myrna Loy version either. This is a re-envisioning of the original concept. As Uncle Roger (Ebert) would say: "it wasn't broken, but boy, do they fix it!" Reading the press material, I understand from that Bonnie Hunt wrote a draft herself. Said to be more like the original novel, I imagine it would have made a nicer, funnier film.
Steve Martin carries Cheaper by the Dozen on his shoulders. It is a slam-dunk of a comedy performance. Levy wisely lets Martin do what he does best: be funny. Even when the film reaches the dregs, Martin never fails to put a smile on the audience's face. The casting of Bonnie Hunt as Martin's wife should have set off fireworks of comedy. Unfortunately, the script requires her to be away from the family for an extended period. Hunt's strengths are improvisation and wit, yet this is a concept Hollywood has yet to fully grasp. By sticking her with a subplot that is as tired as it is predictable, the filmmakers missed many potential comic moments.
Hilary Duff is promoted as one of the stars, yet her screen time is minimal. Anyone expecting a juicy performance should turn away right now. The same goes for Piper Perabo, who has even less screen time than Duff. In his film debut, Smallville hunk Tom Welling is unimpressive. Then again, he isn't given much to do in this script other than be an angry, pretentious snot. Ashton Kutcher's uncredited role of Hank conforms to his usual low standard. Like many young alleged comedic actors, he seems content to play the same character over and over again. Hank is essentially Kelso, his character from That '70s Show. After working with Mr. Demi Moore in Just Married, Levy must find him funny. I'm glad he does, because Mr. Kutcher doesn't have many defenders around these parts. The most impressive supporting performance is given by ten-year-old Alyson Stoner, who plays middle daughter Sarah. She has a flair for comedy, evidenced by her great delivery of otherwise pedestrian lines. She can genuinely act in serious moments. With more screen time than both Duff and Perabo combined, this role should establish a leading career quite easily. Disney, are you paying attention out there? Or if someone out there won't, I will.
Fox presents Cheaper by the Dozen in both 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen and a pan-and-scan version. As the press material states, it's "double the fun." Thank God for these off-the-wall quotes. Otherwise, I wouldn't have any fun. The double-sided flipper disc features the widescreen version on Side A. The must-to-avoid version appears on Side B. The widescreen version looks great. With the exception of some light specks and minor edge enhancement, the transfer is clean and sharp. You'd be hard pressed to find a better transfer of this film.
Audio is also superb. The Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround stereo mix is flawless. The mix is the perfect balance of dialogue and music, with neither overwhelming the other at any point. The mix makes fine use of the multi-channel sound 5.1 offers so beautifully when done right.
Some extras are included. Two commentary tracks are offered here. The first, by director Shawn Levy, is good. Even if his films are uneven, he is a more than competent director. Some critics have complained that he talks about his actors too much, but why not? Surely, actors are an important part of any film. He gives generous details about the production and technical aspects of it. It's a solid track. The second commentary track is credited to the Baker kids. Anyone expecting to hear Tom Welling or Hilary Duff is in for a rude awakening, as neither one appears here. It's mainly confined to the younger cast members with Piper Perabo chiming in here and there (from a separately recorded session). Well, how does one review a track that is filled with kids? You can't hold them to the same standards. For children, they do fairly well. The track isn't very informative but it is a fun listen.
Five deleted scenes and an alternate ending feature optional commentary by director Levy. It's a rarity when deleted scenes actually improve a picture. The footage fills in holes left behind in the final cut. Some scenes also restore comedy, in particular an extended sequence featuring an ancient nanny played by Oscar nominee Eileen Brennan (Private Benjamin). Watch it and you'll see what I mean when I say that ample opportunities for great comedy were missed.
A short four-minute featurette titled "Director's Viewfinder" is next. Not enough is revealed about the production. It's about as informative as a segment on Entertainment Tonight. Then again, what can you expect from a four-minute segment? Stick to Levy's commentary track.
Last but not least, there is a theatrical trailer for the upcoming Garfield: The Movie. Judging from this trailer, this may be one of the biggest blunders in cinematic history.
Cheaper by the Dozen is worth a rental simply for the terrific performances of Martin and Stoner. As for a purchase, I say not. Many stores are selling this disc for far less than the suggested $26.99 retail price. So if you want to take the plunge and buy it, go ahead. You're not going to hurt my feelings.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary Track by Director Shawn Levy
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