Producer: Kenya Barris Director: Gail Lerner Screenplay: Kenya Barris and Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry Cast: Gabrielle Union, Zach Braff, Erika Christensen, Timon Kyle Durrett, Journee Brown, Kylie Rogers, Andre Robinson, Caylee Blosenski, Aryan Simhadri, Leo Abelo Perry, Mykal-Michelle Harris, Christian Cote, Sebastian Cote, Luke Prael, Simeon Daise and June Diane Raphael Distributor: Disney+
In Disney’s latest quasi-adaptation of the 1948 memoir-novel by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, two of the dozen children alluded to in the title, the Bakers (Gabrielle Union and Zach Braff) have only nine kids—ten if you count the nephew they temporarily add to their brood. That’s but one way in which the new “Cheaper by the Dozen” comes up short.
Just to refresh everybody’s memory, the book was about how the authors’ parents, time-motion efficiency experts, tried to run their large household using the tools of their trade—precision, discipline and mathematical rigor. It was turned into an amusing movie starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy in 1950, which spawned a sequel, “Belles on Their Toes,” a few years later. The property then lay dormant until 2003, when it was resurrected, after a fashion, as a slapstick vehicle for Steve Martin, with the whole efficiency-expert business jettisoned; the result was just a terrible feature-length sitcom, but it was successful enough to invite a 2005 sequel, also pretty lame.
Now at least the title is back, but apart from the “aren’t big families hilarious?” premise, there’s little left of the original fifties pictures, which, though old-fashioned, still retain their charm. This version has none of that, and very few laughs, but tries to compensate by adding some heavy-handed socio-political baggage to a “Brady Bunch” template.
The Bakers, you see, are now an interracial couple, two amicably divorced folks who brought their kids from their first marriages with them. Zoey’s (Gabrielle Union) marriage to NFL star Dom (Timon Kyle Durrett) resulted in two children, Deja (Journee Brown) and DJ (Andre Robinson). Paul (Zach Braff) had been married to New Agey Kate (Erika Christensen), and they had two offspring, Ella (Kylie Rogers) and Harley (Caylee Blosenski) to whom they’d added his orphaned godson Haresh (Aryan Simhadri). Zoey and Paul had, we’re told, simply grown apart from their first spouses, and the separations were far from acrimonious; indeed, Kate still serves as a regular babysitter, especially for the four children, two sets of twins, who have arrived since: Luna (Mykal-Michelle Harris) and Luca (Leo Abelo Perry), and Bailey (Christian Cote) and Bronx (Sebastian Cote). So the Bakers are a very blended multiracial family, and just to add further to the diversity, Harley’s confined to a wheelchair.
Paul and Zoey met cute, of course, when she and Deja had breakfast at Paul’s little L.A. restaurant and bonded over Zoey suggestion that it should be a twenty-four hour breakfast place. You might say it was love at first bite (a horrible pun, which happily does not occur in the movie, though given the quality of the script it could).
Anyway, they’re a happy, if raucous, family until Paul gets lucky and convinces investors to back bottling his “special sauce,” which is so successful that it leads to the idea of franchising his restaurant. That leads to the family’s relocating to a big mansion in the ultra-affluent community of Calabasas where, of course, the elite moms, even the best-intentioned ones, treat them with condescension. When Paul and Zoey take in his troubled nephew Seth (Luke Prael), it creates more tension, especially after the neighborhood begins to experience a spate of break-ins. Further complications arise from Paul’s frequent absences on business trips, which strain both his relationship with an increasingly harried Zoey and his own dedication to the ethos of his original restaurant.
Then there are the older kids’ school problems. Deja, who was a basketball star at her old campus, but is benched at the new one. She also begins skipping out to be with handsome new boyfriend Chris (Simeon Daise). Nerdy DJ pines after a Goth classmate but doesn’t know how to approach her, while Harish is bullied by some over-privileged white boys. And of course Seth is suspected of being a thief.
You can be certain that all the difficulties, including Seth’s running away when accused of stealing, are resolved in typical feel-good fashion, but not before Dom is given the opportunity to tell Paul that, as loving a surrogate father as he might be, he simply doesn’t have the personal experience to prepare Deja and DJ for the sort of discrimination they will inevitably face in American society. It may be a salutary observation, but one that’s easily set aside for a kumbaya montage at the end, which acts as a bookend to the prologue in which Paul meticulously describes how the Baker family came to be.
Inevitably there’s an episodic feel to all this, given the necessity of providing at least some screen time for each member of the large cast, though many of the kids don’t get much. There are many sequences that are more like revue sketches, most notably an extended comic dance-off between Paul and Dom during the halftime of one of Deja’s basketball games. There’s also a lot of mugging going on, with Union and Braff leading the way but the others not far behind. Everything feels strained, the result of trying to pump life into mediocre material. The picture has the bright, glossy look of TV sitcom (Desma Murphy was production designer and Mitchell Amundsen the cinematographer), and one of those insufferably bouncy scores (by John Paesano) that’s busy nudging you in the ribs to tell you how funny the proceedings are.
Perhaps there are families out there who will enjoy watching this insipid reboot together. It can’t be called a disgrace to the title since the Martin misfires had already trashed it, but it’s no better than they were, despite its pretensions to social relevance.