The Parents, Trapped

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 26, 2003

THE CHIEF operating word, the crucial active ingredient, in "Cheaper by the Dozen" is anxiety. As in the constant scene of screaming children, sibling squabbles, school-lunch preparation, homework monitoring and other madhouse-factory conditions that mark any day at the Baker household.

There are 12 children in this family and only two parents to handle them all. Yet Tom (Steve Martin) and Kate Baker (Bonnie Hunt) seem more than up to the multitasking required. You ask yourself: Does their apparent serenity come from a bodhisattva-like constitution or prescription medicine? The answer is neither. It's just plain old love of family, as well as perfectly synchronized teamwork between husband and wife as they manage to push their kids out the front door just before school every morning.

Sound familiar?

Such a brutal lifestyle needs only one or two little developments to upset the proverbial apple cart. In "Cheaper by the Dozen," the disaster begins when high school football coach Tom gets his dream job: head coach of his alma mater's football team. The job also means moving from their Chicago suburb to a bigger one. It means changing schools, losing friends. It means ending life as everyone knows it.

Nonetheless, the family votes to move, just to please Dad. (Actually, the parents pretty much rig the vote, as is often the case in the controlled democracy model practiced by many a parent.) It gets worse. Mom suddenly lands a book contract and a two-week publicity tour. This means Tom is going to have to run a football team and the family.

New operating word for the Baker family: Disaster.

If there's a moral, it seems to be: If you're, uh, bold enough (there might be other adjectives to bestow on this approach to family planning) to have 12 kids, you shouldn't expect to ever see professional life again unless you find the magic plan. Otherwise, the only way you can step out of the house is accompanied by at least two children in a station wagon and with a shopping list.

The movie, a remake of a 1950 movie starring Clifton Webb and an adaptation of the autobiographical book by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, is hardly riddled with surprise or even spark. There are many little episodes, the least of which involves Hilary Duff as a vanity-conscious teen daughter, and the funniest of which includes Ashton Kutcher as Hank, the aspiring actor and boyfriend of eldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo), who knows his handsome face is his only ticket to television fame. But "Cheaper by the Dozen" has the quality of being disarmingly unassuming. As the dad, Martin (who made such a good harried parent in "Parenthood") is often amusing, and Hunt makes a likable, tough and loving mom. And if the children are, essentially, a schematic representation of stereotypes, their collective needs, whines and family togetherness are certainly real enough. This is a movie that knows its audience and realizes it doesn't need much of a story to hit that audience, literally, where it lives. If ever there was an inconsequential video rental for a Friday night, this is it.

CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN (PG, 100 minutes) -- Contains some naughty language, major throw-up and other hazards of family life. Area theaters.

© 2003 The Washington Post Company