"Cheaper by the Dozen" apparently means to celebrate family life, but it's as synthetic as a plastic Christmas tree. Not for a second will an only child find anything to envy about the Bakers of Midland, Ill., where a household of 12 children means that sometimes a parent cannot always address an offspring by his correct name. It's hard to imagine that director Shawn Levy and his writers, in reworking the autobiographical novel by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, intended anything but a warm holiday treat, but, if only by default, the film plays subversively.
It may have to do with the casting of Steve Martin as the family patriarch, Tom Baker. Like Robin Williams, Martin has a complex, multifaceted comic persona that often is at odds with the determinedly feel-good tone of their more mainstream movies. No matter how intent Martin is on coming across as the sweet-natured regular guy, there's no disguising that he's able to see life in the round and that what he perceives is not always upbeat and amusing.
At any rate, the Bakers live an idyllic existence in their large Victorian farmhouse, run smoothly by the unflappable Kate Baker (Bonnie Hunt), who has got to be the world's most glamorous and youthful-looking mother of 12. (There's lots of heavy-handed emphasis on what a hot love life the Bakers have, and that only what would seem to many a belated vasectomy prevented them from having even more children.) Somehow Tom manages to support his family as a football coach at a nearby college. In short, if the Bakers don't have much money they have an abundance of love.
Out of the blue Tom's best friend (Richard Jenkins), director of athletics at their Chicago alma mater, offers him the coveted position of football coach, which would allow Tom to realize his dream of moving to a top-level college team. Tom sees an unexpected chance at having it all — it must be taken on faith that he is a great coach — and Kate encourages him to go for it, over the vehement protests of their children.
No sooner do the Bakers land in the Windy City than the book Kate has been writing about her domestic experiences is accepted for instant publication, meaning not only a quick trip to Manhattan for her but a book tour of a couple of weeks. Since Kate was so supportive of Tom, he in turn feels he must encourage her to take off. At last the film arrives at the heart of the matter: The unhappy Baker children rebel big time, swiftly endangering their father's new career even before it gets off the ground.
Why don't the older children, even as miserable as they are, try to keep their younger siblings in line, explaining that they're distracting their father from his job to the extent that he's about to lose it? (It's unimaginable that Clifton Webb, in Fox's charming and very different 1950 version of the novel, would for a second not be able keep his brood from ultimately toeing the line.)
The inescapable point of the film, despite its family-is-everything pieties, is that it's virtually impossible to have it all when there are 12 children to raise unless the family is seriously well off. Martin, Hunt and the young actors playing their offspring certainly give their all to the film, but ironically it is stolen by an unbilled Ashton Kutcher as the eldest Baker daughter's boyfriend, an aspiring actor deeply, hilariously in love with himself.
Kutcher contributes not only the film's sole light touches but also its one connection to reality. As flagrantly narcissistic as Kutcher's silly Hank is, there is something endearing about a guy honest enough with himself and others to admit that if he's going to make it, it's going to be more on looks than talent. Amid clunky bouts of extreme knockout comedy, including the smashing of the Baker mansion's entrance hall chandelier no fewer than four times, Kutcher introduces a welcome note of recognizable humanity.
'Cheaper by the Dozen'MPAA rating: PG for language and some thematic elementsTimes guidelines: Suitable for family audiencesSteve Martin...Tom BakerBonnie Hunt...Kate BakerPiper Perabo...Nora BakerTom Welling...Charlie BakerHilary Duff...Lorraine BakerA 20th Century Fox presentation of a Robert Simonds production. Director Shawn Levy. Producers Robert Simonds, Michael Barnathan, Ben Myron. Screenplay by Sam Harper and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow. Screen story by Craig Titley. Based on the book by Frank Bunker Gilbreth, Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Cinematographer Jonathan Brown. Editor George Folsey Jr. Music Christophe Beck. Costumes Sanja Milkovic Hays. Production designer Nina Ruscio. Art director Scott Meehan. Set decorator K.C. Fox.Running time: 1 hour, 38 minutes.Opens Christmas Day in general release.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun