- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 24, 2003

Director Shawn Levy has had quite a 2003. He kicked off the year with one of its absolute worst, “Just Married,” and finishes with “Cheaper by the Dozen,” which is only slightly less annoying.

Say this for the Levy canon: It suggests Hollywood isn’t as reflexively anti-family as many complain. “Married” supported the idea of getting hitched young, and “Cheaper” supports the idea of having children — lots of them.

The comical “Cheaper” clan is the ideal nuclear unit, multiplied by three or four. Indeed it has several sets of twins: identical, fraternal and “Irish.” They run the gamut of personality types: glamorous (that would be the witless Hilary Duff), tomboyish, devilish, introverted, confident, shy, rambunctious.

There are 12 in all, and they’re called Baker. Hey, wouldn’t a “baker’s dozen” be 13? Oh, why ruin an already bad joke.

“Cheaper,” by the way, is a remake of an old hunk of studio pap from 1950; both movies are based on the memoir by Frank Gilbreth Jr. and sister Ernestine Gilbreth Carey’s about their very crowded childhood.

Their father was one of those industrial efficiency experts from the 1920s who had 12 guinea pigs to experiment on at home; Dad here is a college football coach, played by Steve Martin. The Gilbreth matriarch was a psychologist; Mrs. Baker (Bonnie Hunt) is a homemaker and the family memoirist.

“Cheaper” and “Married” have another thing in common, perhaps the most disturbing development of 2003: Ashton Kutcher. The pretty boy toy, thankfully, has only a bit role, as the eldest daughter’s vain, underemployed boyfriend.

But, lo, there’s a Kutcher-in-waiting here, too: Tom Welling, who plays eldest son Charlie and whose job here consists of looking a) studly and b) wounded by the family’s move from rural Illinois to big Chicago.

The Baker brood’s chaotic but oddly stable life is upset when Tom Baker (Mr. Martin) receives the offer he’s always wanted: the head-coaching job at the (fictional) Division I college where, as an undergrad, he was an undistinguished third-string quarterback.

Dad promises everyone that the move to an upper crust suburb, with the obligatory snooty neighbors, will make everyone happier, and reluctantly they believe him. Until one little complication: The little book Mom has been working on, called “Cheaper by the Dozen,” gets published, which means publicity tour. Which means: Dad must run the house alone.

Which means: A lot of predictable, Steve Martin-y physical pratfalls that turn the house into a money pit (the stuff that isn’t wrecked stays in boxes that become pushy advertisements for a certain furniture and homeware store); melodramatic family crises; and sweet resolutions.

Charlie can’t adjust to life at the new school, because the rest of the boys think he’s a hick. Another Baker youngster — who can keep track of all the names? Anyway, the bespectacled one with red hair and freckles whose siblings call him “FedEx” because he’s the odd one out and, hence, must’ve been airmailed — runs away.

Can the Bakers hold it together? Will Mom and Dad sacrifice their fancy new lives to save their family?

C’mon. It’s Hollywood. The Bakers can have it all.

*1/2

TITLE: “Cheaper by the Dozen”

RATING: PG (Mature thematic elements)

CREDITS: Directed by Shawn Levy. Produced by Michael Barnathan, Ben Myron and Robert Simonds. Written by Craig Titley, Joel Cohen, Sam Harper and Alex Sokolow, based on a memoir by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey.

RUNNING TIME: 98 minutes.

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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