Itís amazing to realize that Steve Martin is still a major comedy star after nearly 25 years. While many of his equally-talented contemporaries (Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd) have either turned character actor or nearly stopped working altogether, Martin still headlines big-time movies. And thank goodness for it. I think the man is a genius, even when the projects he chooses are standard. Martinís latest Ė a remake of Cheaper by the Dozen - is not a brilliant comedy, but itís sturdy and reliable, with plenty of laughs.
Martin plays Tom Baker, a college football coach who lives in a tiny Illinois town with his wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) and their twelve children. Most of the kids are admittedly kind of generic, but a few stand out. Nora (Piper Perabo) is the oldest. She has just moved in with her self-obsessed actor boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher) whom no one likes. Charlie (Tom Welling) is the next oldest. He has some problems with authority and often clashes with Tom. Lorraine (Hilary Duff) is the fashion-conscious one in the group, always talking about clothes and shopping.
When Tom gets an offer to coach for his alma mater Ė a large university in the city Ė the clan packs up and moves to the Chicago suburbs. The children are almost uniformly unhappy about being uprooted. Plus, most of them donít quite fit in with the more sophisticated city kids. Things get worse when Kate has to go to New York for a two week tour promoting the book she has written about her brood. Tom claims he can take care of the kids by himself, but the demands of his new job prevent him from devoting his full attention. The children therefore get into all kinds of trouble. When he tries to focus more on the kids, his boss complains that he isnít doing his job properly. Tom canít win, but wonít admit it. Heís big on saying that he wants to ďhave it all.Ē
Cheaper by the Dozen is kind of two movies in one. Part of it is a very outrageous slapstick comedy. Thereís a scene where Tom and the boy across the street (whose parents are very snobby bluebloods) end up swinging from a chandelier. In another sequence, Tom gets trapped inside one of those inflatable ball machines as it overfills with air and eventually explodes. In still another scene, the mischievous kids arrange for the family dog to attack Noraís obnoxious boyfriend.
I suppose those scenes are funny in a way, but I prefer the more down-to-earth portions of the film. Cheaper by the Dozen has, at its core, a very clever concept: the Baker parents are used to chaos and are therefore virtually unflappable. For example, the first scene shows the family making breakfast. Itís practically an assembly line, as each family member does a specific job. Then one childís frog gets loose and hops across the table. Tom and Kate donít just scream helplessly; they spring into action, instantly improvising a way to catch the frog. I really like the whole idea that these parents have been trained by their twelve children on how to handle almost any crisis situation without panicking. Theyíve seen and done just about everything. Thatís funny. Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt both get a lot of mileage out of these characters and situations.
The movie also gets laughs by showing how crazy it would be to have twelve kids. One memorable moment finds Tom trying to talk on the phone while kids run all around him. A ball hits him in the head. One kid gets cut; another pukes. Yet another child hangs out a window. If youíve ever been around a couple of little kids, you know how insane it can be when they get all fired up. Cheaper by the Dozen takes this idea to the extreme for comic effect.
Thereís a genuine understanding of siblings here too. I was kind of moved by the plight of the five Baker children who attend elementary school. On their first day at the new school, theyíre all terrified, so they hold hands as they enter the building together. Itís a simple little touch that adds something to the movie.
The plot here is formulaic. Somehow you know that Tom will have to choose between his job and his family. You also know that Noraís boyfriend will be given the pink slip in the end. And of course thereís a rather predictable crisis (one child runs away) that manages to bring the family closer together when the pressures of the parentsí jobs threaten to pull them apart.
But so what? Cheaper by the Dozen is all about being warm and funny, and it succeeds on both counts. Itís a real charmer, with a touching reminder about the value of family. And here is Steve Martin, less wild and less crazy perhaps, but still making me laugh after all these years.
( out of four)
Cheaper by the Dozen is rated PG for language and some thematic elements. The running time is 1 hour and 38 minutes.
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