Title: Cheaper by the Dozen
Release Date: 2003
Nationality and Language: USA, English
Running time: 94 Min
MPAA Rating: PG
Distributor and Production Company: 20th Century Fox
Director; Writer: Shawn Levy
Cast: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Tom Welling, Hilary Duff, Ashton Kutcher (“punked” and uncredited!), Piper Perabo
Relevance to HPPUB site: family values, family size
By dozen, we don’t mean a baker’s dozen. There are twelve kids, all right. A big family. Tom and Kate Baker want a big family more than anything else (Okay, Daddie loved Mommie and they made babies). But they want it all, career, winning football teams, stardom, big houses, money. Something has to give. The result is entropy.
As a boy I think I saw the original film with Clifton Webb, based on the autobiography by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. I think it was black-and-white and that it was a mannered comedy, around 1950. The story revolved around running a big household with office-like efficiency. Here, though, we have pure situation comedy, sort of like the movie version of “I Love Lucy,” that is, The Long, Long, Long Trailer. Remember when Lucy fell in the mud? Then, in CinemaScope, no less.
The trouble here is bringing up a number of intriguing and nettlesome situations that lend themselves maybe to satire but not that well to sitcom. What we have is a romp, a scherzo that skims across the surface with its gags (dead frog falls on the family dinner, kids turn the dogs on babysitter’s crotch, kids throw up, chandeliers fall down, etc. – the back yard baseball scene, where Tom swings at apples with a badminton racquet and hits home runs was pretty clever.)
The story, with all its unfulfilled gaps, does set us up. Tom takes a better job as the head coach of his alma mater’s football team. Kate has written an autobiographical book called, guess what, “Cheaper By the Dozen” (thank god the screenwriters didn’t call it “Do Ask Do Tell”). Her publisher (yes, she has a big, trade publisher – she went New York, she is a REAL “author”) puts her on a two-week book tour so she has to leave dad home to coach his team and take care of the twelve kids. She even gets an interview on Regis and Kelly (that is, yes, Regis Philbin and Kelly Ripa, and she comes across well in the staged interview). Then the script promises a house interview by Oprah (she has to come home to rescue daddy after all), but then the movie never delivers Oprah. (Okay, I’d be glad to do Oprah for you!!!! The you couldn’t print my own DADT book fast enough.)
That is not to mention another problem. Even big New York publishers today pretty much leave authors on their own to promote their books. And if they don’t sell—don’t get out of midlist to the bestseller list—they tend to get dumped, or go down to less lucrative markets. That brings us to self-publishing, but that requires another screenplay, doesn’t it!
So we come to the acting performances. Steve Martin himself is always funny, all the more in the quick vasectomy scene with his middle-aged balding legs (only to find that it takes time for tying tubes to work). What I really liked was Steve Martin in The Spanish Prisoner (1998). Bonnie Hunt as Kate really does seem like she wants to break her shackles, as if she had been a student at Wellesley and been in Julia Roberts’s art history class in Mona Lisa Smile. Kate indeed is post-Betty Friedan because she wants not just to write but to start a new public life just of her own. She really does.
The other interesting thing here is the way the script manipulates the younger adult male actors. Ashton Kutcher plays Hank, the aspiring actor who does commercials and waits on tables and brags about both (all actors have to wait on tables, he says—true, they have to, in H.R. parlance, “transition”). Hank is oldest daughter Nora’s boyfriend, and older indeed (old enough to have some scraggly chest hair, that he is allowed to keep for at least one scene). And he is plenty narcissistic when he watches himself on television, when Nora suddenly gets called to help find a runaway kid brother. He claims that he doesn’t want to have kids or have anything to do with them. (Like TV commentator Bill Maher, he is an “adult.”) Here, of course, there is a question about the moral legitimacy of his life “choices,” but the screenwriters handle this by having the smaller kids pick up on this and stage the canine ground beef crotch attack.
Tom Welling plays oldest son Charlie. At this point, I mention that I saw this movie on Dec. 26 at a matinee in a large auditorium in northern Virginia, and the show almost sold out, half of the audience on-break teenage girls wanting to see Kutcher and Welling, both. It seems that the screenwriters needed two conspicuous young male stars to more or less cancel each other out. Of course, we wonder how Clark-like (aka Smallville Beginnings) he will come across. An early scene starts as if it could have been shot at the Kent farm in Smallville, or could almost fit into a Rockwell painting. Daddy Tom awakens Charlie with a “Hey, Teenager!”, and scolds him for breaking curfew and taking his college application lightly, and Charlie just wants to take a job and start his own life. “Anything else you want to say,” Tom says. “Well, dad, I don’t like you very much. Other than that, I’m good.” Technically, this introductory scene is masterful, all the way from capturing Charlie’s great hairy legs and vigorous body to his crashing back into bed. But the Charlie character rather dies. Yes, there is a subplot hinted, that Charlie resents being taken away from his life (apparently he would have been quarterback on his high school football team in his old high school) when Tom Baker moves the family “to have it all.” Yet, he doesn’t get to do much here. Is he a role model for the younger kids? (In Smallville, Clark is raised as an only child (hardly spoiled, as he does his farm chores with loyalty), and there is a disturbing episode where his mother miscarries with a baby brother.)You want to see him pull off Clark’s “speed” and it would actually be funny if he did. That is how this movie works. In just one episode of Smallville Beginnings, as I recall, Clark gets to play a little football, and then quits (he has to hide his “secret” as if it worked like don’t ask, don’t tell – and, recall, that in Smallville Beginnings Episode 1 Clark [and predecessor] is strung up as a scarecrow [reminding one of Matthew Shepard] partly because he doesn’t play football like the other boys!!). Actor Tom Welling could have gotten the chance to throw touchdown passes in this movie, but it got away, or it got in the way of being funny.
It seems hard for a young actor that has done a TV role that honestly hooks us as something to take seriously, to be believed in comedy, unless you get into paradox, satire, or layers, a humor that Tobey Maguire gets away with in Spider Man. I suspect that Tom Welling would want to do a sports movie, and I can imagine various possible targets, some of them heavy (Lance Armstrong, Roger Staubach, Bobby Thompson, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Cal Ripken, Herb Score—no, not “the Babe). Or maybe not. It is hard when one mammoth hit drama show series sets the audience expectations for the roles you play.
So a story like this raises a lot of issues, and the trouble is, in today’s world they are hard to take anywhere in situation comedy.
Cheaper By the Dozen 2 (2005, 20th Cent. Fox, dir. Adam Shankman) makes this a new franchise. In the second movie there are two families competing on a makeshift labor day regatta on an Ontario lake, to make this a kind of straight "Sommerstrom."
There is a vigilante mouse to steals car keys and other things -- in Dallas I had a stray cat Timmy who would do the same thing. At the end, one of the kids gives Steve Martin's character a grandson, and he challenges them to "crank out the grandkids." So we have family for family's sake.
Tom Welling again looks as sharp as ever; the shirt never comes off, but he runs around the lake in shorts. He looks perfect, but he gets very little chance to act. He needs to find a "real" film soon. Agents, take note.
Another film to compare this to Yours, Mine and Ours (1968, United Artists, dir. Melville Shavelson). Here a remarriage creates an instant big family of 10 + 8 = 18 kids (do the arithmetic, grade school kids). They say this movie deep-sixed Lucille Ball's (I Love Lucy) career. In 1971, on a civilian Navy job, I made a friend who had remarried into a family with three kids and said that the instant responsibility was a real socializing experience. His saying was "verbosity promulgates egregious epigramitization." You know who you are! More seriously, many volunteer families had experienced explosions in family and child membership, crowded into apartments or small houses, when taking in domestic "refugees" from Hurricane Katrina. As on a report on NBC4 Thanksgiving Day, a family of 5 becomes a family of 30, with all loss of privacy. This film has a remake in 2005 (Paramount/Columbia dir. Raja Gosnell).
The remake has Dennis Quaid and Rene Russo as the widowed rematches -- they brag about their fecundity, all right, and Coast Guard Admiral; Beardsley (straight enough for the military, given the politics of DADT) wants to run all the kids like military conscripts (he threatens to draft them). "The military is not for free expression." The oldest kid, William, runs for school office and is played by Sean Faris. Linda Hunt is the housekeeper, who overlooks the kids forming a daisy chain out a window chasing a computer terminal. "The Kids" try to break the couple up, but will they become one big family? This really heavy into socialization. There is even a pig who sleeps with them.
This movie makes an interesting comparison to The Secret Lives of Dentists (2003, Manhattan Pictures, directed by Alan Rudolph, written by Craig Lucas and Jane Smiley, based on Jane’s novella). David Hurst and Hope Davis play husband-and-wife dentists David and Dana, struggling to put their family and three kids first. Particularly when an “intestinal flu” walks through the entire family (people with kids are exposed to everything). And in the domestic home scenes and family trips, they really seem overwhelmed by their kids. But Dana may or may not be involved with another man, and David is taunted by an apparition of one of his “worst patients,” Slater (Denis Leary, who comes across as looking like Willem Dafoe). The dental scenes are sometimes funny, but perhaps not as much as in Final Destination II (New Line). There is a touching scene towards the end where David questions why he went all the way through dental school and entered the profession just to have “this” (a better family).
(The mayhem in the Final Destination movies has some competition from the opening 1962 sequence of Ghost Ship (WB, 2002), where heads are sliced in half like they were pumpkins.)
There is also The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys (Sony Pictures Classics, ThinkFilm), dir. Peter Care, written by Jeff Stockwell, with Emile Hisrch, Kieran Culkin. Jena Malone and Jodie Foster, 105 min, R, 2002), which is not quite like it sounds. It’s all redblooded teen heterosexuality and rebelliousness—played out in parallel to animated sequences from a Marvel comic that the teens buy, to the dismay of Sister Assumpta (Foster), whom the Catholic school boys want to harass. The pranks start with the heisting of an icon followed eventually by trying to kidnap a cougar—a beautiful cat, with tragic consequences. There is a great line, “There is no They.”
Raising Helen (Touchstone, dir. Garry Marshall, 2004, PG-13; Kate Hudson, Joan Cusack, John Corbett) poses the moral problem: what if you are a single career person (Helen, played by Kate Hudson) and then are asked to raise someone else’s children. Here, a sister Lindsay is killed on a car accident, and in her will she leaves the custody of her kids to Helen instead of Jenny, already married and pregnant with kids herself. Why? That is gradually revealed (and it is not the “pay your dues” reason you think), but in the meantime Helen loses her job in a modeling agency, moves to a working class neighborhood in Queens to find space for the kids, and has to learn mundane skills (selling cars). Yes, this is a kind of cultural revolution about “family responsibility,” and yet the film is too bland, politically correct, and safe (is it drama, romantic comedy or sitcom?) to get serious about its message. After all, the notion of family responsibility even for those without kids seems to escape deliberate debate, even in these times when we debate gay marriage. She does fall in love with a Luther Pastor Dan (John Corbett) and gradually gets assertiveness training (“because I said so”). The most important line in the script, though, is when she says the decision for her to raise the kids was made by someone else. This film is shown with a wonderful Walt Disney cartoon Lorenzo. (About a cat?) Great to see new cartoons come back.
The NBC show “The Apprentice” with The Donald Trump featured a contestant, Troy McClain, who had given up a chance for a college education in order to take care of a disabled sibling. (Troy still works for Donald setting up events and Donald is now paying for his education!)
Saving Sarah Cain (2007, Fox Faith / Lifetime / Believe, dir. Michael Landon, Jr., 100 min, PG) is one of the most powerful Christian-inspired films about cultural values in the modern world. It had a very limited theatrical release, and should have been promoted more aggressively to major and independent film chains. Even so, it could be on this year's Oscar list. A single syndicated columnist Sarah (Lisa Pepper) faces writer's block and the complaint from her Portland, OR newspaper editor (Elliot Gould) that her columns are getting trite and boring. When out with her boyfriend Bryan (Tom Tate) she receives a sudden cell phone call from Pennsylvania, and learns that her sister, who had married an Amish man, has died of congenital heart failure. In the opening sequence, the film shows her putting her last wishes, though not a formal will, in a plain box.
When Sarah travels for the Amish commemoration, she is confronted with a Pennsylvania social services official, who informs her that under state law she is automatically the guardian of the sister's five kids, unless she wants to relinquish custody into foster care. The Amish bishops want to place the kids to be "raised plain" rather than "English," but the state insists that the decision is Sarah's. This comports with other seemingly pro-family provisions in PA law, such as a 2005 movement of filial responsibility laws from the welfare code to the family code. Sarah takes the kids back to her modern life in Portland, and enrolls them in public schools. The kids actually do well, despite the girls being singled out for the "prayer caps"; the teenage boy Caleb (Sonen Fulton), physically fit from Amish life, enjoys his sudden limelight on the high school wrestling team. A younger boy Josiah (Tanner Maguire) impresses the fire department in his ability to climb out of a tree when he went to chase an animal.
In the meantime, Sarah writes columns about her "instant family" and the cross-cultural experience with the Amish and her columns become a hit, and make money for the paper and advertisers. But, through a confrontation at school, the oldest girl finds out about all the attention their aunt (and legal guardian) has given them, and this precipitates a family crisis, since Amish people do not accept being photographed or having individuals made the subject of public limelight. In this regard, it's interesting that she "leveraged" the kids with print media, not Internet blogging, although Internet versions probably would have gotten her kids into the search engines. What she did was not illegal or objectionable to most modern western people (this is somewhat related to what the controversy over Myspace and social networking sites is about), but it was objectionable to the original Amish family. She travels back to PA to resolve the conflict and make a decision about the kids than can affect the rest of her life and theirs. The very end is a bit ambiguous. There is some great filmmaking in the "chase" scene involving the Amish buggy and her rental car, and even a train.
On the surface, the film sets up a scenario resembling that of "Raising Helen" and "Summerland" (below), and suggests that family responsibility for other people's (relative's) kids is quasi-mandatory and not always dependent upon sexual intercourse.
Fox Searchlight Pictures should promote this film more visibly, and get it before the Oscar judges. It could be on the list for Best Picture.
Gracie's Choice (2004, Columbia / Lifetime, dir. Peter Werner, based on a Readers Digest article by Rene Dicter Le Blanc). When a drug-addicted mother (Anne Heche) gets thrown in jail, her oldest daughter (Kristen Bell) struggles to raise her half-sister and three half-brothers, all by different fathers. Along the way she deals with the courts, to "adopt" them and be emancipated; with school, boyfriends, and the return of her biological father. This is certainly a case of a child taking "family responsibility" for her parent's behavior.
Breakfast with Scot (2008, Regent / Here!, dir. Laurie Lynd, novel by Michael Downing, PG-13, Canada). A gay male (both in sports) couple in Toronto winds up keeping the little boy of one man's sister in law, and eventually becomes a family. The little boy is more nelly than they are. Blogger discussion.
A similar premise (to the Helen and Sarah movies) underlies the minseries drama Summerland (Aaron Spelling) on TheWB, starting June 1, 2004. (It ran two seasons of episodes.) A single fashion designer, Ava, who lives on the Southern California beach, takes over raising her sisters three kids when her sister is killed in a tragic car accident. The opening episode, where the teenager calls her, is harrowing. There is also a children’s novel (ages 9-12) Summerland, by Michael Chabon, 2002, published by Miramax/Hyperion Books for Children, ISBN 0-7868-0877-2. Miramax and Hyperion are Disney subsidiaries. There appears to be no connection between this novel and the new television series on TheWB. (Book and movie titles cannot be copyrighted or trademarked, but book or movie series names can be trademarked, as can accessories or toys based on them as long as the name is a “brand” in the commercial sense. (I’m not sure whether a television series of finite length, as is common on TheWB, fits the meaning of ‘brand’ in trademark law.)) Summerland presents two appealing teen male characters: Bradin, who takes up surfing (music artist Jesse McCartney – his smooth body reinforces the new Hollywood metrosexual ideal that the more immature the man looks, the more enticing—for women??) and Cameron Bale (Zac Efron). The show takes a twist in 2005 when school principal Simon O’Keefe (Jay Harrington) proposes to marry Ava (Lori Loughlin, the aunt taking care of the three kids including Bradin) and walks out wfter Ava says “I do” at a wedding. This show is much more concerned about adult issues than is the “Raising Helen” film, and Ava’s kids don’t come across as real “kids” since Bradin is the center of attention and is practically grown (he grows up very quickly during the show—including some (Everwood) Ephram-like escapades with girl friends). Compare this (and "Raising Helen") to "Regarding Billy" below.
In from the Night (2006, Hallmark, dir. Peter Levin, dir. Marsha Recknagle, 100 min, PG-13). This is a kind of rework of Summerland and Raising Helen. This time, a novelist and English teacher (Marcia Gay Harden), desperately trying to finish a manuscript for an agent, gets a knock on the door from a teenage nephew Bobby (Taylor Hansfield) who has run away from home and mentally ill parents. He crashes, literally--wolfing down junk food (his only word is "ketchup") and dropping onto bed, prone position. He is anti-social, has BO, and would appear to have Asperger's Syndrome, but it turns out that he has sleep apnea which is treated (by Medicaid MMIS). Her job is then to turn him into someone as accomplished as Summerland's Bradin. It isn't easy. She wins him legal emancipation from the parents, and takes over raising him. With medical treatment and a clinical psychologist, he cleans up quickly (although there is a scary episode with some ratpack friends and maybe drugs). He seems to be a computer nerd (he says he is a machine with no feelings and even says once that he is not human). He gets some independence, with a garage apartment next door, but she has to help him out. He becomes articulate and sociable and pursues a GED at an alternative high school. This does play the family responsibility card well, though. She is at a "writer's conference" in Santa Fe (NM) when he calls and she has to run back (the grandparents were trying to raise him). The conference has no Internet or phones and writers write by longhand (like woodchucks chuck in a David Lynch movie, maybe) -- I once went to a writer's conference like that at Lama Foundation in New Mexico, in the 1980s.
Martian Child (2007, New Line, dir. Menno Meyjes, novel by David Gerrold, Canada, 108 min, PG). The movie starts out with fly-overs of Mars and Earth, globes in a museum -- before we realize it's not a sci-fi movie. In fact, it's a mixture of Smallville, Everwood, and a bit of ABC Family (maybe "Kyle XY") with a touch of Spielberg thrown in, resulting in a comedy-drama with the topicality of an indie film but the stylized presentation of big Hollywood (actually Vancouver). An accomplished science-fiction writer and widower David (John Cusack) meets a somewhat autistic seven year old boy Dennis (Bobby Coleman) -- probably the clinicians would say he has Asperger Syndrome -- living in a cardboard box near an orphanage. Most of the rest of the movie is about his bonding with the boy and proving to the social services people that he is a fit adoptive single parent (there is a "trial" period, which is a dangerous notion in itself).
What's more significant, however, is the "moral" message. Dennis, with his imagination almost grounded in science (he claims he is from Mars and seems to have some psycho-telekenetic gifts as demonstrated in the movie) needs not just loving parents (like a traditional married couple if possible -- you know the birthright argument) -- he needs a specific kind of parent. David may be the only person that could fill the bill, since David is a bit of a "creature" himself, preferring to view life from the outside and imagine it and document what he imagines before living it. He has gotten paid well for doing this, and may be the only kind of person who could possibly bond with Dennis and unearth his latent talents. The need for David is so specific that it does not matter that David is single; it really would not matter if he had been gay (the story just doesn't take the idea that far, but it could -- I think it's supposed to be true in part).
One then posits the idea that everyone should face responsibility for others in life -- directly and in person in real life, not just through the economy or trade. If so, the next problem is whether the responsibilities that come someone's way are the right match for one's abilities. They are in this movie, but they aren't always in real life. There is a subtle reference to Winston Churchill's "never ever" speech, as if recognizing this principle can keep one on the right path in right to meet the challenges that come.
Bella (2006, Roadside Attractions / Metanoia, dir. Alejandro Gomez Monteverde, wr. with Patrick Million and Leo Severino, 91 min, PG-13, Mexico / USA) This film starts with an earthy confrontation in a Hispanic owned restaurant in NYC and looks back, through flashbacks, and ahead, with the end, to tell a real story that, while intimate, has some moral lessons. A former soccer player Jose (Eduardo Verastequi) works for his brother Manny (Perez) as a head chef, and one day a waitress Nina (Tammy Blanchard) is fired for being late. Manny thinks she is hung over, she says she is sick. Soon we learn it is morning sickness. You hear the moral lecture about other people doing her work, but Jose jumps in as if compelled to resolve some emotional karma. In time, they wind up in a Brooklyn garage, with a Lincoln car that is gathering dust. Jose says that the last time he drove it, he went to jail. A little girl ran out from between rowhouses in the middle of the street and struck, and he was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. Legally, he probably shouldn't have been, although he was distracted when driving. But what matters is that he ended a life. So he wants Nina to continue the life growing within her. He had signed an international soccer contract, which is now gone, but his passion for sport is gone, too. The only way he can regain passion is to raise a child, it seems. It's not too hard to guess who Bella is (the little girl Eppy from George Elliot's Silas Marner, a staple of sophomore English in my high school days and a subject of pop quizzes, comes to mind). .
The film shows down to earth shots of restaurant worker's lives, and it looks like very hard, dirty, and hot work. I wonder if I could do it. That seems like another point of the film. So are the shots of the food, that match the animated shots in Disney's Ratatouille .
Film teachers will discuss the narrative and storytelling technique of this film for years.
Sleepwalking (2008, Overture, dir. Bill Maher, wr. Zac Stanford, 100 min, NR but would qualify for PG-13, Canada). With Charlize Theron producing the film and playing the role of a pot-growing mother Joleen who abandons her daughter with a rogue boyfriend, you expect something intense, like "Monster." Her somewhat passive brother James (Texas actor Nick Stahl, from "In the Bedroom") tries to take over the job of raising her in somewhat squalid conditions, even going on the lam with her to rescue her from a foster home (which here is pretty horrible) run by state social services. The wind up at his father's ranch for the showdown. There is a bit of inconsistency in Stahl's performance, or perhaps in the writing itself: it's not clear whether he really has a "moral" responsibility to raise his niece, or really believes he does. He seems to believe he could prove himself "a man" if he did, "worthy" of a wife. The story could have been (more) interesting had James been gay. The film was shot in Saskatchewan, in the winter, with barren and occaisonally snow swept prairies, and Soo Line freight trains, familiar to anyone who has lived in Minnesota and driven around the northern plains and prairie provinces. The isolation of the characters makes the plot plausible, but makes the character of James hard to figure out.
Fireproof (2008, Samuel Goldwyn / Sony Affinity / Sherwood, dir. Alex Kendrick, 122 min, PG). This Christian-oriented film takes a couple through rebuilding its marriage with faith. Blogger discussion.
The Conrad Boys (2006, Newport, dir. Justin Lo) a young man foregoes college to raise his younger brother when his mother dies. But then romance, and the return of his father create a web of drama. Blogger discussion.
Uncle Buck (1989, Universal, dir. John Hughes). A fat bachelor becomes a family slave when his sister-in-law's father has a heart attack. Blogger.
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