- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

The Steve Martin family comedy “Cheaper by the Dozen” is the latest in a trend that sees comedians young (Will Ferrell) and older (Eddie Murphy) playing nice for big box-office returns.

“Cheaper” racked up $85.6 million in two weeks. Were it not for a certain movie about hobbits and dwarves, it easily would’ve topped the box office twice.

Mr. Martin is no stranger to comedies about families — witness “Parenthood” and a pair of “Father of the Bride” movies. But those films each had their racier moments and weren’t expressly targeted at young audiences. “Cheaper,” in a clever cross-generational marketing scheme, certainly was.

Pitched broadly to youngsters and, with the likes of Hilary Duff and Tom Welling, teenagers, “Cheaper” had the added sweetener of Mr. Martin to draw parents as well.

It’s the same all-ages appeal that made Mr. Ferrell’s “Elf” an unlikely holiday smash. Since its pre-Christmas release, “Elf” has taken in a hefty $171 million.

With comedians such as Mr. Murphy cashing in on the family niche with movies such as “Daddy Day Care,” and, more recently, “The Haunted Mansion,” it’s no surprise that Mr. Martin and Mr. Ferrell heard the same sound of ka-ching, ka-ching.

Paul Dergarabedian, president of Exhibitor Relations Co., which tracks and analyzes box office sales, says there’s a reason comedians, in particular, hear that sound. “Comedians seem to age more gracefully than their action-hero counterparts,” he says over the phone.

It has helped that Mr. Martin, who began last year with another unexpected hit, “Bringing Down the House,” “almost looks the same as he did in 1979,” Mr. Dergarabedian says. “He’s sort of ageless.”

Action movie stars, who depend on physical strength and prowess, have no such luck.

“You can be funny when you’re 12; you can be funny when you’re 60,” Mr. Dergarabedian says. “It’s a great place for Steve Martin to be. Here he has two films in one year that are big hits. He has appeal to virtually all audiences.”

Mr. Dergarabedian says that, combined with the scorching business done by “The Lord the Rings,” “Cheaper by the Dozen” contributed to a record-breaking holiday weekend. “No one expected [‘Cheaper’] to do that well,” he says.

Boasting a cast ranging in age from 6 to 60, “Cheaper,” despite lukewarm reviews, has something in it for everyone, an unusual promotional hook in a niche-oriented movie market. “The family market is very strong,” Mr. Dergarabedian notes.

With no more “Lord of the Rings” sequels on tap this Christmas (sorry, Tolkien-heads), look for the increasingly good bet of family movies like “Elf” and “Cheaper by the Dozen.”

Apparently, there’s plenty of room at the top for unobjectionable comedy, even coming from comedians, such as Mr. Murphy, who got famous on the back of four-letter words, and Mr. Ferrell, who is perhaps best known from behind. (See “Old School,” and wince.)

The rule seems to be, “Once funny, always funny.” Unless you’re Chevy Chase.

And muscleheads, take heed. It’s a short ride. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Then run for governor.

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