Sometimes while watching a movie if you listen hard enough you can almost hear the meeting that took place at the movie studio when the film's concept was first pitched. Such is the case with 2003's Cheaper By The Dozen, a film directed by Shawn Levy and featuring the undeserved talents of Steve Martin. If you concentrate I bet that you can tune into the meeting right now...

"OK guys, put your heads together on this one. We need a family comedy to open on Christmas Day 2003. Something that adults, teens, and kids can all go see together. Whaddya got for me?"

"Well, sir, if we're going to appeal to all three target audiences, we'll need someone big. Some real star power. Like for the adults we need someone wild and crazy, yet also calm and restrained."

"Like Parenthood meets Housesitter."

"Right. I think we can get Steve Martin to topline. He can play the loveable father."

"Good, good. Now who's he married to?"

"Bonnie Hunt still owes us a picture."

"Great, get her. Now these two gotta have some kids. Brainstorm for me."

"Rebellious teen jock."

"Tomboy little girl."

"Skinny awkward kid."

"Overweight sloppy kid."

"Twin boys. Everyone loves twins. You ever see those kids on Everybody Loves Raymond? I swear, those two are-"

"Stay on topic. Now, what else ya got?"

"Teen fashion queen."

"Eldest daughter living with boyfriend."

"Who's the boyfriend?"

"Oh, some self-obsessed pretty boy. He's all wrong for her. He'll just have a few scenes and then at the end of the movie she dumps him."

"Maybe we could just go with three generic kids and focus on Steve and Bonnie."

"I like, I like. Those are great ideas, but we gotta cut them down. We can't make a movie about twelve kids!"

"Wait, maybe we can. Remember that 1950 movie with Clifton Webb? The one where he and his wife raise a large family?"

"Cheaper By The Dozen? Wasn't that based on some book?"

"Oh, I see where you're going with this..."

"Exactly, we just remake it. Steve and Bonnie are the parents of a family of twelve kids. We can get some teen star power for the elder kids and then we just go cute for the younger ones."

"I don't know about this. Do you know how hard it is to write a script for fourteen principle characters?"

"Nah, this thing will write itself. How about this: Steve and Bonnie move the family from Smallville, USA to-"

"Ooh, great idea! We'll get that Clark Kent kid to play the teen jock!"

"Like I was saying, they move to the big city and the kids don't like it there. They all rebel and pull all sorts of mean pranks and get into all kinds of mischief. You know the drill; one of them runs away, someone breaks something valuable. Then they all gang up on Steve and eventually he has to choose between his career and his family."

"What happened to Bonnie?"

"She's away on business. That way Steve has to watch the children and we get that whole Parenthood vibe going."

"Wait, what's Steve's job? What's he do that takes so much time from his kids?"

"I got it! He's the coach of a football team. Get it? Twelve players on the team and twelve kids in his family! His character's name is Baker."

"Baker?"

"Yeah, Baker, dozen, twelve. See?"

"Clever. I think we have this in the bag. Just one thing though: how are we going to hold the kiddie interest?"

"Toilet humor, of course. Vomit gags and that sort of thing. We'll have the fat kid slip in a puddle of puke. Kids love that stuff."

"Sold! Gentlemen, we've done it again."

Cheaper By The Dozen
This Christmas The More... The Scarier!

Truer words were never said.

You know, I heard that the remake of the movie of the book Cheaper By the Dozen was actually this horrible revenge on everyone by pissed-off members of the Moller family.

In real life - you know, the thing without Steve Martin in it - the Gilbreth family visited Oakland to see their mother's relatives, the Mollers. The book actually gives their address, and I drove around looking for it once. It took me several trips to find it, because instead of the gorgeous huge old house described in the book, there is now a parking garage for Summit Hospital. The description in the book, mind you:

The house was fringed with palm trees, magnificent gardens, and concealed but nonetheless imposing outbuildings in which the family indulged its various hobbies. There were a billiard hall, radio shack, greenhouse, pigeon roost, and a place where prize-winning guinea pigs were raised.

Clearly Cheaper By The Dozen: The Remake You Didn't Want to See is a revenge by their frightened and angry ghosts.

Of course, if it is such a revenge, we're bound to have another one soon, as all the other horrified and angry family ghosts rise up against this monstrosity. It won't be based on the book's sequel, of course, even though there was already a movie made from it in the 1950s which they could "remake," if that's what they're calling this sort of behavior. No, we'll be getting Cheaper by the Dozen II, Hilary Duff's Revenge, or some damn thing. (Zerotime says, "Don't forget the third sequel, most likely released direct to video, in which Hillary Duff's character will probably get married. Wacky hijinks. Etc.")

Why?

Well, there are a number of things missing from this new story. For one: dignity. For another: the original characters. Instead of a father with brains and some common sense, with a solid sense of humor and a consistent, disciplined parenting style, we get a high-speed bumbling Steve Martin playing a football coach. Playing, actually, almost the only character he ever plays.

Instead of a loving, patient, and calm mother who's always there for them - and who has a consistent, disciplined parenting style - they get this random woman who never seems to parent and seems only to be there for inappropriately sexual jokes.

Instead of a story about the ups and downs and most of all the humor and love of a large family, we get a story about how they've moved from a small town in Middle America to a bigger one. With Ashton Kutcher in it.

As with The Cat in the Hat, which was released around the same time, this movie is a mauling of a really good and long-beloved book. When I was about eight, I had do a book report for school. My dad told me he had done one on Cheaper by the Dozen when he was little. I hunted it up as a prize for the bookcount and it's been one of my favorites ever since.

The entire problem with the movie can be summed up by the fact that all of their names are different. In the original book, and movie, and for that matter real life -- that's the thing without Steve Martin -- the family is named Gilbreth. The parents are Frank Bunker Gilbreth and Lillian Moller Gilbreth. The twelve children are (from eldest to youngest) Anne, Mary, Ernestine, Martha, Frank, Bill, Lillian, Fred, Dan, Jack, Bob, and Jane. All with me so far? Good. Now, in the new movie, their names are... Baker. Tom and Kate Baker. Their children all have different names too, things like Nora, Lorraine, Henry, and Jessica.

Why?

Well, the parents' names in particular, and the places the story is set, reek of vaguely retro Americana, the sort of blandly extra-white family values that Hollywood occasionally vomits out at us. Their roles echo this: it's the current standard cookie-cutter idea of family, the hapless dad who couldn't parent with a parenting eye dog until you explain things to him in terms of sports metaphors, a supermom who supposedly does all the work invisibly around her career, and a bunch of kids who essentially run the world and make wacky wisecracks with almost zero personal growth. It has nothing to do with real people or relationships; it's just the bland and warped update to the equally dysfunctional and supposedly idyllic 1950s family life myths that the Hollywood executives probably grew up with.

Inexplicably, Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey (two of the real-life kids) are still credited for having written the book on which the movie was supposedly built. I still don't understand this. I may never understand this. They changed the plot, the characters' names, pretty much all the events, and the entire point of the story. Why on earth did they bother keeping the title and pretending it was based on anything other than their fevered imaginings? Let me tell you, if they had, my blood pressure would be a lot lower.

The worst thing about the movie, unfortunately, horrifically, forms the entire premise on which the movie is built. See, the book is actually a loving memoir about growing up in this very individual, unique, sometimes lunatic family. It's actually dedicated:

To DAD

who only reared twelve children

and

To MOTHER

who reared twelve only children

I can't imagine such things being said of the parents in the movie.

The book is especially about a father who was a well-known motion-study expert and all the ways he used those skills to teach them an astonishing number of things. (The sequel, Belles on their Toes, focuses on their mother in all her glory.) We learn how, one year when they are on vacation, he paints the alphabet in Morse Code on the bathroom wall, and then on the dormitory bedroom ceilings along with key words: A, dot-dash, a-BOUT; B, dash-dot-dot-dot, BOIS-ter-ous-ly; C, dash-dot-dash-dot, CARE-less CHILD-ren; D, dash-dot-dot, DAN-ger-ous. Then he painted secret messages in code on other walls around the house.

"What do they say, Daddy?" we asked him.
"Many things," he replied mysteriously. "Many secret things and many things of great humor."
(as they begin to translate the messages)
"Lord, what awful puns," said Anne."And this, I presume, is meant to fit into the category of 'things of great humor.' Listen to this one: 'Bee it ever so bumble, there's no place like comb.'"
"And we're stung," Em moaned. "We're not going to be satisfied until we translate them all. I see dash-dot-dash-dot and I hear myself repeating CARE-less CHILD-ren."

In contrast, nobody, it would seem, learns anything in the movie. The father has nothing like this to share, although probably they've all absorbed a good bit about football over the years, and they use many football metaphors in a way that is clearly supposed to amuse and entertain. When the loathed boyfriend is chased off, the mother remarks, "He didn't make the cut." Ha ha ha ha friggin' ha ha. That was totally worth my nine dollars.

If I recall correctly, in both the book and the remake of the movie, the father has a line about how after a certain number of kids, they just started walking out. Even though the book is a true story which takes place in the early 1900s, Steve Martin actually makes these references to frequent childbirth MORE inappropriate, disgusting, and awkward than they come off in the book. Which. Is set. In the early 1900s.

Let's compare how the subject is treated in general in both instances. The book tells how, when they drove around in their massive old convertible,

Pedestrians would come scrambling from side streets and children would ask their parents to lift them onto their shoulders.
"How do you grow them carrot-tops, Brother?"
"These?" Dad would bellow. "These aren't so much, Friend. You ought to see the ones I left at home."
Whenever the crowds gathered at some intersection where we were stopped by traffic, the inevitable question came sooner or later.
"How do you feed all those kids, Mister?"
Dad would ponder for a minute. Then, leaning back so those on the outskirts would hear, he'd say as if he had just thought it up:
"Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know."
This was designed to bring down the house, and usually it did. Dad had a good sense of theater, and he'd try to time this apparent ad lib so that it would coincide with the change in traffic. While the peasantry was chuckling, the Pierce Arrow would buck away in clouds of gray smoke, while the professor up front rendered a few bars of Honk Honk Kadookah.
Leave 'em in stitches, that was us.

In the movie, what do we have?

Neighbor: Is Jake your only child?
Kate: Oh no. We have 12.
Tom: I could not keep her off of me.

This is also a great example of the kind of stellar, jewel-like humor brought to us by Messrs. Sam Harper, Joel Cohen, and Alec Sokolow, who wrote the benighted screenplay for this monstrosity. They also brought us such hilarious moments as:

Jake: Yeah, without you, we wouldn't be the twelve Bakers anymore. We'd be (looks real serious) eleven.
and this exceedingly bizarre exchange:
Lorraine: Black works, Mom. Jesus, like, had his funeral on Christmas.
Henry: Jesus died on Easter, Barbie!
Jessica: Jesus was resurrected on Easter, moron.

What they should have done, I think, would be to keep the same actors and stubbornly modern attitude (like the second-eldest daughter's clothes horseism) and actually make the movie be set in the nineteen-teens and twenties and based on the book. We would at least have a refreshingly different context for the same jokes. We could see her bemoan her hand-me-down outfits with the interesting twist of watching what that might look like in the fashions of the day. It would add a freshness to the old tired jokes. But they might have to give up on dipping that boy's underwear in meat and setting a dog on him, and that would never do.

Now, I'm not being entirely fair. There are some funny lines in the movie, especially if you enjoy slapstick. But they are deeply formulaic, as if the movie moguls just hired a bunch of "tween" superstars and then started up the Rehash-O-Meter. It's line after line of things people would never do and reactions other people would never have, like this from the father: "You soaked his underwear in meat. That is so wrong. Funny, but wrong."

If real parents had twelve kids and that level of discipline and respect in the family, they would be long-dead and a Lord of the Flies state would rule in the house. Of course, the environment of this movie comes pretty close.

Typical user comments at the Internet Movie Databse include such high praise as:

I'm not a Duff fan and feel that 97% of her acting borders on the line of whining and the tradition doesn't end here. However, given the fact that her older brother is as handsome it would seem appropriate that the next in line child were just as attractive. Duff fills that bill.

and the succinct

I watched this at a drive-in last night, and thankfully it was in Spanish.

Of Belles On Their Toes, the original sequel to the original movie - which was based on the original sequel to the original book, and bears the same name - one IMDb user wrote,

"Part of the charm of the original was the attention paid to period details and the wonderful production values - missing this time around. The family originally lived in the house made famous in 'Meet me in St. Louis', now the set looks like Mayberry. Interiors, originally rich with detail have taken on the 50's monochromatic look of an old 'I Love Lucy' episode. Direction? The pacing, cinematography and line deliveries are found lacking."
Consider this. Multiply it by ten thousand. Add the pain of changed characters, changed names, a plot gone missing and replaced by ninety-eight minutes of inane slapstick, and all the writhingly painful moments described herein... and you will have the 2003 remake of Cheaper by the Dozen.

References:

  • Cheaper by the Dozen, by Frank B. Gilbreth, Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, published 1948 by Bantam Doubleday Dell; 1988 edition.
  • Belles on their Toes comments: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0044410/usercomments
  • Cheaper by the Dozen comments, information, and quotes: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0349205/
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