When a mother and father become obsessed with their careers, the children suffer. That's the obvious message of Cheaper by the Dozen, a raucous comedy starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt as the very busy parents of twelve youngsters. It's a cute movie -- but also an annoying one. Watching kids yell and misbehave always makes me squirm uncomfortably until things calm down again, which doesn't happen often in this remake of a fifties film that featured Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy as the more dignified mom and pop.
Oops! Better clarify that last statement. This Cheaper by the Dozen isn't so much a remake as a contemporary version of the original movie, a film based on a true story about how an efficiency expert and his psychologist wife raised twelve offspring. However, even the famous Gilbreths would have trouble handling this 2003 wild bunch. They practice hockey in the house, argue incessantly with their parents, fight with each other, dunk a guest's shorts in raw meat to entice the dog, and throw whatever they can get their hands on at any target -- including a pre-school teacher.
Nevertheless, because amusing and appealing moments appear on screen at the strangest times, I found myself enjoying enough of this uneven flick to recommend it, especially for fans of its wonderful co-stars. Although Martin isn't easy to accept as a football coach, he's quite funny in scenes with the children. For example, to entertain the youngest ones, he growls hilariously while imitating a monster. And he delivers one of the quirkiest eulogies on film at the funeral of a pet. Portraying the author of a newly published book, Hunt may not project the same haughty competence as Myrna Loy, but her winning personality shines through here in the same way it does on TV's Life with Bonnie. She's simply delightful in an interview scene with Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa. When asked about the births of her twelve children, Hunt replies, "The last ones just walked out."
Several members of the supporting cast also impressed me with their entertaining performances. Hilary Duff (The Lizzie McGuire Movie), displaying a flair all her own, plays the fashion expert of the family. Tom Welling (TV's Smallville) is convincing and oh-so handsome as the oldest son who wants to leave as soon as he graduates from high school; and Piper Perabo (Coyote Ugly) lends a lovely authenticity to the role of the oldest daughter who's already moved out. Surprisingly, the most humorous character in Cheaper by the Dozen is played by Ashton Kutcher (Just Married) in an uncredited performance. It's a small part -- little more than a cameo -- but I laughed out loud every minute he was on camera. Kutcher makes a perfect self-absorbed wannabe actor who gets his comeuppance from his girlfriend (Perabo) and her family.
I applaud the emphasis Cheaper by the Dozen places on listening to your children -- no matter how busy you are with your personal goals. Nothing earthshaking about a message like this, I know. Still, it never hurts to be reminded of something so important.
(Released by 20th Century Fox and rated "PG" for language and some thematic elements. Reviewed after Sneak Preview held on December 20, 2003.)