A Slightly Cracked Fresh 'Dozen'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, December 25, 2003

How things have changed. In 1950, Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy played the parents of 12 children whose most worrisome acts of insurrection were confined to bobbing their hair and wearing lipstick.

In Shawn Levy's current adaptation of "Cheaper by the Dozen," Ernestine Gilbreth Carey's best-selling memoir, Tom and Kate Baker (Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt) are contending with a daughter who wants to sleep with her boyfriend; their youngest kids execute diabolical pranks with military precision. Even Tom and Kate themselves still evince a certain friskiness. "I couldn't keep her off me," Tom explains to new neighbors appalled at the size of the Bakers' brood.

But that's about as racy as it gets in "Cheaper by the Dozen," a genial, strenuously hip comedy aimed straight at families looking for ways to enliven holiday longueurs. It's the height of ersatz Hollywood Americana (the Bakers' suburban Illinois house is of the architectural type known as Evanston-by-way-of-Melrose Avenue), but Martin and Hunt give the production a mellow warmth. And Levy has cast an appealingly diverse bunch of kids to play the young Bakers, from the burgeoning stars Tom Welling and Hilary Duff as two slightly snarky teenagers to a passel of refreshingly off-kilter youngsters whose edgy quirks give spike and flavor to an otherwise vanilla enterprise. (And watch for a funny cameo from Ashton Kutcher playing a fatuous young actor.)

In the 1950 movie, Frank Gilbreth used his kids as subjects in his motion-study experiments; here, Tom and Kate are both dedicated to their careers, Tom as a football coach and Kate as a writer. Although she left her newspaper job midway through her maternal journey, she has just written a memoir that is going to be published. Meanwhile, Tom has been offered a job coaching the team at his alma mater. Dramatic tension ensues when the Bakers try to balance a huge family while pursuing their youthful dreams.

Of course, such a project has to entail a pet frog plopping into a dish of scrambled eggs, a bout of tag-team vomiting, a recurring set piece with a crashing chandelier and a grand finale involving a birthday party, a trampoline and a live snake. "Cheaper by the Dozen" hits all the compulsory beats of a movie that depends for its laughs on carefully choreographed mayhem.

But Hunt and Martin manage to inject their signature brands of low-key humor where they can, despite the movie's broadest efforts. (The lack of subtlety extends to its parent studio's insistently dropping its own name, even on one of Tom's team's jerseys.) "Cheaper by the Dozen" is an unobjectionable if uninspired updating of a classic family story for the minivan generation. If anything, it's encouraging to see a movie that hinges on a man wondering whether he can have it all. The movie's answer might be predictably pat, but it still deserves a little credit for asking the question.

Cheaper by the Dozen (90 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for language and some thematic elements.

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