Steve Martin is, as anybody familiar with his screenplays, plays and occasional writings well knows, an extraordinarily literate and intelligent fellow, and in his best film work he’s also a coolly incisive presence. That’s why it’s so dispiriting to watch him acting the moron in slapstick garbage like “Bringing Down the House,” from earlier this year, or the present miserable rowdy-kids comedy. “Cheaper By the Dozen” is an even more lowbrow, chaotic version of the schmaltzy, trivial sitcom stuff he did in 1989’s “Parenthood.” One hopes for so much from a talent like Martin’s that when you’re confronted by the sight of him degrading himself in this sort of tripe, the result is doubly disheartening.
The picture, directed after a fashion by Shawn Levy, is theoretically a remake of the fondly-remembered 1950 comedy starring Clifton Webb as a turn-of-the-century time-and-motion expert who ruled his large family using the techniques of his profession. Actually that Walter Lang picture doesn’t hold up today any better than its obvious model, “Life with Father,” does, but this updating has little resemblance to the earlier film anyway, even though the script claims to be based on the semi-autobiographical book by Frank and Ernestine Gilbreth, two of the children ruled by the imperious character Webb portrayed.
The 1950 version was an unrealistic but warmhearted version of the Gilbreths’ recollections, emphasizing the gentle absurdity of the attempt to raise children in the most efficient, rigorously mathematical way. That very premise is dismissed in the new version: Tom Baker, the father figure here, is a football coach at a small college in downstate Illinois who might be a tactical success on the field but is utterly unable to enforce any sense of discipline or order at home. Simply put, the house that he and doting wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) head in a rustic town called Midland is sheer chaos, a teeming mass of unruly children, the oldest of whom, Nora (Piper Perabo), has already fled the homestead to live in Chicago with her dim-bulb actor boyfriend Hank (an uncredited Ashton Kutcher, presumably doing a favor for Levy, who directed him in the atrocious but unaccountably successful “Just Married”). But the eleven who remain are enough to keep the home atmosphere perpetually roiling. Martin, as Baker, reacts with lots of farcical eye-rolling and bumbling gyrations. But of course all the turmoil is but a sign of the enormous love everyone feels for everybody else.
The obligatory crisis occurs when Tom’s old college buddy Shake (Richard Jenkins), now the athletic director at an imaginary university near Chicago (obviously modeled on Northwestern), offers him the head coaching job there–a dream position that Tom, with Kate’s blessing, accepts despite the opposition of all his progeny. Their arrival in a handsome suburban neighborhood would be a difficult enough transition under any circumstances, especially since Baker’s high-profile job requires frequent absences from home; but matters become even more complicated when Kate, who’s penned a volume about her large family, is called away on a book tour, leaving Tom in charge of the homestead.
What follows is entirely predictable: things fall apart, with the older children growing distant and sullen and the younger ones increasingly obstreperous, and Tom, torn between job and household duties, incapable of dealing with the resultant mess. The culmination comes when Kate returns for an in-house Oprah interview which turns into a disaster, and one of the tykes runs away–bringing the whole family together again to find him, of course. The near-tragedy teaches everyone what their priorities ought to be, and by the close the family is found reunited and happy around the table for Christmas dinner (a nod in the direction of the release date, one supposes)–though from all appearances they’re still in the Chicago house, which doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Contrary to the premise of the book on which it’s supposedly based and the picture of which it’s purportedly a remake, therefore, the subject of this “Cheaper by the Dozen” is really the complete ineptitude of the father. In this it’s entirely characteristic of the Homer Simpson era; but while such farce can work wonderfully well when done with wit and insight (witness Homer himself), here those qualities are completely lacking, and Martin’s manic intensity in the central part becomes a cruel misuse of his talent. Hunt, who’s absent for much of the running time, fares better for that very reason, but at best she’s blithely insignificant.
Of the children, the older ones are the most notable. Perabo is largely wasted, but “Clark Kent” Welling–from “Smallville”– shows an agreeable screen presence as the eldest son (he has one of his best moments in the inevitable out-takes that accompany the final crawls), even if his character’s crisis is very thinly drawn. Duff, on the other hard, is thoroughly annoying an empty-headed clothes horse with nothing but style and designer labels on her mind. Apart from Forrest Landis as the quiet, sensitive bespectacled Mark (it’s hardly surprising that he becomes the runaway), the younger kids aren’t terribly ingratiating; indeed, they’re just reruns of the precocious brats who are regulation items on bad TV sitcoms. In fact, apart from Martin’s bug-eyed turn, what viewers are most likely to recall about the movie is Kutcher’s characteristically rambunctious appearance–some of it self-deprecating, but most of it merely tasteless. Like everything surrounding him here, Kutcher isn’t especially funny, but he does stand out.
Though it probably wasn’t an especially cheap production, this “Dozen” doesn’t look particularly good: there’s a garishness about it, with often unattractive cinematography by Jonathan Brown, that seems in sync with its shrill comedic style. The combination makes for a picture that might attract sizable audiences looking for lightweight holiday entertainment but-–since it gets lousier by the minute–is likely to satisfy only those who thrive on the most insipid network fare. The picture can, to be sure, serve a useful historical purpose when taken in tandem with the 1950 version, serving as a cultural artifact demonstrating the decline of the American family as a social entity over the last half-century. But one doubts that’s what its makers had in mind.