Movie Review: Cheaper by the Dozen
Like so many Hollywood adaptations, this one takes its title and little else from the book upon which it’s based (in this case, Frank Gilbreth Jr. and his sister Ernestine’s fond and funny novel about growing up in the 1920s with 10 brothers and sisters and an efficiency expert for a father). To see that story you’ll have to find the 1950 Cheaper by the Dozen, starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy, who run their dozen progeny through their paces with comic precision.
This story also features 12 offspring, but their father, played by Steve Martin, is a fun-loving football coach, and the mother, played by Bonnie Hunt, is a marvelous mom who is now the author of the above-mentioned book about her zany family. The setting is present-day USA as only Hollywood could imagine it, with the Baker family living in a lovely house surrounded by a verdant, supposedly Midwestern landscape, which really looks more like the lush Napa Valley, where the movie was filmed.
We are told that their home is humble, and that the family survives on Dad’s meager coaching salary, but everyone is so darn happy chasing frogs and slipping on scrambled eggs, and their place looks so great that most viewers would gladly trade their own homes for the Bakers’ “shack.”
As the script would have it, the Bakers’ idyll in paradise comes to an end when Dad is offered his dream job to coach his old college team in the big city. Much to the children’s distress, the Bakers’ pack up their plantation and move to the city, into a grander and more spacious mansion. Despite their opulent surroundings, the kids are miserable because they’ve got snooty neighbors and jerks at school that make fun of them for being hicks.
To make matters worse, Mom disappears on a book tour leaving Dad to manage by himself. As you might expect, Dad has more than he can handle running the family while ramping up for his new job. The pressure builds and chaos ensues, as Mom and Dad realize that they can’t have it all and manage their humongous family, too.
This movie is so “Hollywood” it feels phony from the get-go. Everyone looks so upbeat and exuberant, with Mom and Dad grinning through one calamity after another, that one suspects they’re on mood elevators. When they do finally lose their cool toward the end, it’s just as contrived because the story demands it. (Anyone who has kids will wonder why these parents didn’t blow their stacks much earlier.)

Still, there are some funny moments, especially Ashton Kutcher’s unbilled role as eldest daughter Nora’s self-obsessed actor/boyfriend. And Bonnie Hunt’s sardonic underplaying is the perfect counterpoint to all this hyped-up nonsense. But the overall tone of the film is so forced that it signals the filmmaker’s desperation for laughs. Kids will enjoy the film’s broad physical comedy, but parents may long for more substantial laughs and insights. For ages 4 and up. Rated PG.