Re-Views: 'Cheaper by the Dozen' (2003)

It would be too much work to verify this without the use of an intern, but I think "Cheaper by the Dozen" is the movie where I most strongly disagreed with the greatest number of my fellow critics. I gave it a sterling B+ review, which for me means it's very good, if not quite "great." It had some solid laughs, a sunny disposition, a nice message and a likable cast.

But take a gander at Rotten Tomatoes and you will see that I am very much in the minority. Only 23% of the reviews cataloged there are positive, and few are as effusive as mine. The average score is 4.6 out of 10. What accounts for this strange disconnect between me and the rest of the world? And would a second viewing 8 1/2 years later put me back in line with my critical brethren? Let's find out!

Cheaper By the DozenWhat I said then: "'Cheaper by the Dozen' is a proud proponent of what they used to call 'family values,' before that phrase came to be used only ironically... This is a film whose plot devices are old but whose performances are fresh and full of life. [Steve] Martin and [Bonnie] Hunt are both on familiar ground. His overwhelmed-but-easygoing dad bit comes from “Parenthood” (1989), and she has her harried-but-quick-witted mom thing down to a science from her current TV sitcom... Hunt, in particular, is a glowing presence in 'Cheaper by the Dozen,' firing off her zingers in a manner both sharp and motherly... The point of the whole film is that one’s family is more important than anything else, both as a support system and as a source of comedy. We see wholesome entertainment fairly often, but it’s rare and therefore refreshing to see a film that is not just squeaky-clean in content, but in its very philosophy. The fact that it’s also a funny, warm, entertaining film is almost just icing on the cake." Grade: B+ [Here's the whole warm-hearted review.]

The re-viewing: Right off the bat, the playful affection between Bonnie Hunt and Steve Martin as Kate and Tom Baker is honestly heartwarming. They banter like two people in love -- not sitcom love, where the husband and wife only address each other via sarcasm, but actual love. Their dialogue isn't sterling, but it's good enough that two such naturally likable performers can make it sparkle.

Perhaps this is a good place to mention that our quality of life would be better if every movie and television program contained more Bonnie Hunt.

I was also rather affected by the sequence near the end where young Mark Baker (Forrest Landis), the inexplicably red-haired oddball, runs away from home because he feels neglected by his chaotic family. Both of his parents and all 11 of his siblings immediately drop everything and go looking for him. It's hard to say exactly why I find this so sweet, except that I'm a sucker for moments of family tenderness in movies. I was the oldest of six children, and despite my seniority there were times growing up when I felt lost in the shuffle. Deep down, though, I knew that if I were ever in real trouble, I'd have an army of five siblings and two parents sticking up for me.

I should say, however, that the Sniders were a lot better at slapstick than these people are. Most of the physical comedy in "Cheaper by the Dozen" is badly choreographed and miserably unfunny. It starts with a pet frog that falls from the light fixture onto the breakfast table, splattering scrambled eggs everywhere. Then there's a dumb bit with a neighbor kid and Tom Baker falling over the second-story banister and hanging from a chandelier. The neighbor kid's climactic birthday party is a series of illogical, nonsensical, physically impossible shenanigans. I've seldom seen such desperate shtick. And I have seen a lot of desperate shtick!

My 2003 review emphasized how the film didn't have a lot of the eye-rolling annoyances that many family movies do: no fart jokes, no predictable scene where Mom or Dad misses an important baseball game or piano recital, no pie-in-the-face comeuppance for the adult characters who don't like children, etc. That's all true enough, but I overlooked the weak stuff the movie does have. Many of Steve Martin's lines are cringe-worthy, notably his awful eulogy for that stupid pet frog and the bit where he's trying to hire a babysitter by phone and keeps getting turned down when he says how many children he has. Few things are more painful than the sight of someone you KNOW is funny -- one of the funniest men in the world, in fact -- reciting unfunny dialogue.

The movie also falls victim to the old cliche where Dad takes a new job and is immediately too busy with work to pay attention to his family. Immediately. He's barely clocked in on his first day before he's telling Mark to get someone else to help him with his homework.

Remember Hilary Duff? And Tom Welling, from "Smallville"? They're in this. They play the "sticking out like sore thumbs because they're the only recognizable actors cast as Baker children" roles. ("Piper Perabo," you say? I don't even know what those words mean.)

Do I still love this movie? I would be less enthusiastic if I were reviewing the film today, but I would still come down firmly on the side of Fresh rather than Rotten. Though it has its share of simple-minded comedy and formulaic plot points, it's consistently good-natured and friendly, and unafraid to be old-fashioned in embracing the idea of big, tight-knit, supportive families. It's also funny -- yes, funny. I stand by that. I don't care what all y'all say. "Cheaper by the Dozen" is OK.

Grade: B-