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'Cheap' trick

Why remake a classic if you can't do a better job?

STEVE PERSALL
Published December 25, 2003

Two things the movie update of Cheaper by the Dozen has in common with its 1950 predecessor: the title and the number of children shared by a married couple. After that, it's all downhill to the lowest common denominator of family entertainment.

Steve Martin continues his quest to erase fond memories of classic comedy after making new, unimproved versions of Father of the Bride, The Out-of-Towners and Sgt. Bilko. I swear he would star in a remake of The Mary Tyler Moore Show if he could get away with it. Martin, like Eddie Murphy, has compromised his formerly anarchic humor playing bland dads in projects designed to make one decent preview trailer to suck the families in.

If you've seen the ad for Cheaper by the Dozen you've seen it all: Comedy by chaos, all stampeding kids and scrambled eggs on the ceiling. Martin mugging for the camera while playing pratfall guy. Some warm fuzzies and the convenient crises punctuated by kid mischief. Paint-by-number entertainment, although the number is much higher than nuclear family averages.

If the tepid comedy instincts at work here don't completely offend, what the creators did to a film classic and the true-life family that inspired it should. The quasi-inspiration for Martin's role, Frank B. Gilbreth Jr., was a scientist in the field of motion study, using his kinetic brood for experiments while learning about modern (for those times) parenthood. The late, great Clifton Webb played Gilbreth on screen, memorably stuffy and emotionally thawing.

Martin's Tom Baker is a college football coach (jockstraps are funnier than slide rules) and father knowing best. His wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) is an aspiring author whose book tour keeps her away from home for weeks. Tom's efforts to play Mr. Mom result in the football team scrimmaging in his back yard, bothered neighbors complaining and the children each displaying their single personality trait. For the most prominent offspring it's vanity (Hilary Duff), independence with a live-in boyfriend (Piper Perabo, Ashton Kutcher) and general sullenness (Tom Welling). Of course everything gets wrapped up with a big, bright holiday bow to send everyone home smiling. But there just aren't many laughs before that.

Director Shawn Levy (Just Married) simply points the camera where pandemonium happens, whether it's swinging from a chandelier until it crashes or the clumsy guy repeatedly falling while repairing it. Meal times are food fights waiting to explode and every tantrum is immediately forgotten. There's a place for such trivial movie silliness during the holidays and an even more appropriate one in a couple of months, on video store shelves.

Cheaper by the Dozen

Grade: C-

Director: Shawn Levy

Cast: Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt, Hilary Duff, Tom Welling, Piper Perabo, Ashton Kutcher

Screenplay: Joel Cohen, Sam Harper, Alec Solokow, suggested by the book by Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth Jr.

Rating: PG; crude humor, mature themes

Running time: 99 min.

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