One Gross Movie: a Review of Cheaper By the Dozen

Paul R. Potts

We rented and watched the Steve Martin vehicle, Cheaper by the Dozen. I was nervous about it, and it turns out I was right to be. It’s an extended sitcom. It plays as if an interesting script was butchered beyond recognition. Steve Martin only gets to throw off his leash and make some priceless facial expressions in one or two scenes. The rest of the time he’s Mister Wonderful: the perfect, patient, placid, and perfectly unrealistic father/husband, basically every woman’s ideal.

Post Roxanne, Steve Martin has played post-menopausal male characters: his Parenthood and Father of the Bride personas are beyond the age where his libido is a threat to any nearby single women; he’s a dedicated husband. That’s a good personal and positive role model. He’s still a handsome and athletic man, though, and it is not unconvincing when Martin’s character notices that his wife is unashamedly checking out his buns.

Therefore, it makes no sense that this script seems to have inadvertently cut off his dick when he received his well-earned vasectomy following child number twelve. Despite his apparent middle-aged studliness, his character is actually a sad, dickless wonder who lacks the testosterone to stand up to even the most junior of his children. And this doesn’t make him anyone’s role model; it makes him painful to watch.

We’re shown the “chaos” that ensues when that many kids run wild — but it is sanitized, Cosby-show, sparkling-clean chaos. There are only three truly funny moments of mayhem, and they belong in a different movie entirely, perhaps one by the Farrelly brothers: one involving a dog biting someone’s crotch, one involving vomit, and one involving hanging from a chandelier.

The rest of the scenes of chaos are only pale rehashings of the same things. The two-dimensional neighbor family is an absolute embarrassment; the writers should be ashamed. Guys, Chevy Chase called; National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation wants some of its characters back.

It is all so clean that when there is a little bit of dirt in the spotlessly-clean house, it is disturbing for the wrong reasons; it looks like the director wasn’t paying attention, or maybe the dirt was added in post-production via computer rendering. In this perfect home, it is as out-of-place as a turd on the Huxtable family’s dining-room table. When the kids fight, there is no real fighting; it is kind of a Zen thing, really: the fight of no-fight; when a child becomes alienated and runs away, it isn’t true pre-teen angst; it is dumbed down with his sadness over a dead frog. (Most real boys that age I know would probably find playing with a dead frog more interesting than playing with the live one). You can almost imagine the dying frog as a symbol for the father’s moribund dream of a coaching career.

The sad part is that there is some real content here; Steve Martin’s father character is forced to choose between his coaching job and another dozen years of cleaning up after slobbering brats. His wife doesn’t have to make that choice; although she cuts her book tour short, she actually succeeds in getting her book out, and on the bestseller list. She’s able to juggle her career dream and her family. But Daddy, moving heaven and earth to do all he can to keep things together by himself, is mercilessly berated for letting a few things get out of hand; the children, even high-school-age children, are never to blame for acting out, nor is it ever considered typical adolescent rebellion; their behavior is all daddy’s fault, because he dared to dream.

One of the cute-as-a-button children actually throws a sharp dart at another kid’s head, leaving a bleeding gash; nearly putting his sibling’s eye out only elicits a mild verbal reprimand, not the memorable punishment the child needs to cement the lesson. The kids are never really shown cleaning up after themselves, although there is much griping about chores. There’s the usual tired trope that dads can’t take care of kids, but given that this one seems to do such a great job, we’re left somewhat puzzled.

The ultimate message to Dad is clear: suck it up. Sacrifice everything for the children, and don’t expect them to pull together, or move even a little bit towards responsibility and maturity themselves, or learn to take care of each other; and if you don’t give up everything for them, they’ll become psychopathic, narcissistic drop-outs.

No one seems to acknowledge what dad actually gives up his dreams; saccharine-flavored tears are shed, but no one learns anything, especially the kids, who are never expected to grasp that there may ultimately be limits to just how fulfilling it is to clean up after children. As I watch the credits, I leave the film with the full expectation that Daddy will have hung himself from the chandelier by morning.

P.S.: I just took a look at some reviews. It seems the critics agree:

And, finally:

It makes me recommend instead Life as a House instead, which although a manipulative and sentimental film in its own right, at least has an interesting script and some memorable moments, and is shot beautifully. It doesn’t look like a Brady Bunch episode, and it avoids being a complete waste by having some slight grit to it. In Life as a House, an adolescent boy tries to engage in auto-erotic self-asphyxiation, sells drugs, and gets caught trying to make money giving blow jobs to a neighborhood pervert in a car. A neighbor girl likes to live dangerously giving hand jobs to said naked adolescent boy in shower. The boy’s Howard Roark-like architect father doesn’t really give a damn what other people think any more, is capable of getting angry at his son, and has a non-zero testosterone level. At one point he threatens to remove his son’s piercings with the nail-pulling end of a claw hammer. The adolescent is realistically whiny and prissy, there’s not a frog funeral to be found and, for all its flaws, the film is a thousand times more real.

Or you could watch American Beauty.

However, neither of these are kids’ movies. If you’re looking for something more kid-friendly, I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Any self-respecting child would get much more out of these flights of grim fancy than they would out of Cheaper by the Dozen.

Ann Arbor, Michigan
May 2004

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