'Cheaper' version of the '50s classic is fun if you don't think too hard
Special to The Seattle Times
The new Steve Martin comedy, "Cheaper by the Dozen," is best enjoyed as you would an amusement-park ride. From the get-go we're propelled along an easy plotline, bombarded with happy tunes and deposited at the other end completely unharmed except for windblown hair. Whoosh! Another 90 minutes of your life gone. Wasn't it fun? Just don't bring your brain. It'll only get in the way.
"Cheaper" is less a movie than a testament to marketing. What's worked for Steve Martin in the past? Well, the "Father of the Bride" series, his updating of the Spencer Tracy films. That was popular. So let's take another family comedy from that era, the 1950 Clifton Webb vehicle, and update it beyond recognition. Then let's add several teeny-bop idols (Tom Welling of "Smallville," Hilary Duff) so the kids will want to go. Then we'll torture an actor (the uncredited Ashton Kutcher) that people want to see tortured. As for conflicts? They'll result from a wealth of opportunities rather than a lack of them.
The "dozen" in the title refers to the dozen kids — yes, all their own — of Tom and Kate Baker (Martin and Bonnie Hunt), who live a nice if hectic existence in a Midwest farming community named Midland. Tom is the local college football coach, Kate is writing a book about family life. Their biggest problem — besides dealing with the chaos that erupts when a pet frog gets loose on their breakfast table — is remembering the names of their kids. We sympathize.
To the filmmakers' credit, more than half the children become distinct during the course of the film. There's Superman (Welling), the princess (Duff), the skateboarder (Jacob Smith), the tomboy/schemer (Alyson Stoner), the fat kid (Kevin Schmidt), the WWE twins (Brent and Shane Kinsman) and Woody Allen (Forrest Landis), who not only has red hair and glasses but, in "Take the Money and Run" fashion, actually has his glasses tossed aside (but not crunched) by bullies at school.
The controlled chaos of Midland erupts into the real kind when Tom lands his dream job coaching a Division I school, and the troops are moved en masse to Chicago, where their neighbors have, if any, one overprotected child, sometimes literally leashed. At the same time, Kate's book is accepted for publication and she's immediately whisked off on a book tour.
So who's gonna take care of the kids? Tom tries, but he's got press conferences and an emasculating boss, and the kids get short shrift. The WWE twins don't get their morning growl from their father. Superman misses his Midland girlfriend and is treated like a rube at school — even though he looks like, well, Superman, and his father is the Midwest equivalent of Don James, a combination you'd think would win him at least a few friends. (Whoops. Brain. Sorry.) Meanwhile, Woody Allen, the (literal) red-headed (figurative) step-child, is more ignored than ever.
It's interesting contemplating Martin. The wild 'n' crazy guy of the '70s became the uptight dad of the '90s. Here he's less uptight: Essentially he's the father he became at the end of Ron Howard's "Parenthood," the one who enjoys the roller-coaster ride of life. But as a football coach? Not a chance. Too light on his feet.
I'll give "Cheaper by the Dozen" this: It has tons of energy. More kids equals more life — that's its essence. It just makes us long for the deep, dark complexity of a Ron Howard film.
Erik Lundegaard: email@example.com
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