Grosser By the Dozen

14 May 2004

Paul R. Potts

We rented and watched this Steve Martin vehicle. 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 sort of post-menopausal male characters, if that makes sense: his Parenthood/Father of the Bride persona is 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 doesn’t make him anyone’s role model; it makes it painful to watch him.

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 Farrely brothers: one involving a dog biting someone’s crotch, one involving vomit, and one involving hanging from a chandelier. The rest are only a pale rehashing of the same things. The two-dimensional neighbor family is an absolute embarassment; the writers should be ashamed. 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 Cosby 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 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 or 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; it is all daddy’s fault for daring 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 mind verbal reprimand, not the memorable thrashing 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 subtext 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 him is clear: suck it up. Sacrifice everything for the children, and don’t expect them to pull together, or move a bit towards responsibility and maturity themselves, or learn to take care of one another; 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; 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 hanged himself from the meaningless plot device by morning.

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

“A disgrace. A spineless eunuch of a father allows his children to yell at him and bully him. They destroy a mansion. Their mother must be on heroin.” — Victoria Alexander, COM

“An overstuffed, undernourished Brady Bunch episode, only not as funny.” — Sean Axmaker, SEATTLE POST-INTELLIGENCER

“You don’t so much watch this witless, charmless, pointless fiasco as sit hostage, waiting for it to end.” — Colin Covert, MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE

“surprisingly unpleasant” — Sean O’Connell, COM

“Knows no tone between schmaltzy / gooey and slapstick / gross-out.” — Robert Koehler, VARIETY

“OK, so I haven�t read the original book or seen the previous movie. But I�d bet the family dog never rooted its snout furiously in a kid-hating boyfriend�s crotch.” — Nick Rogers, STATE JOURNAL-REGISTER (SPRINGFIELD, IL)

And, finally:

“‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ is not only one of the worst films of the year, it is also a perfect example of why so many foreign countries hate America so much.” — Peter Sobczynski, CRITIC DOCTOR

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: adolescent boy tries to engage in auto-erotic self-asphyxiation, sells drugs, gets caught trying to make money giving blowjobs to neighborhood pervert in car, neighbor girl cock tease likes to live dangerously giving hand jobs to naked adolescent boy in shower, Fountainhead-like architect character doesn’t really give a damn what other people think any more and actually is capable of getting angry and getting an erection. At one point he threatens to remove his son’s piercings with the nail-pulling end of a claw hammer. The adolescent is realistically whiney 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. I’ve just been watching Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits and The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Any self-respecting child would get much more out of these flights of grim fancy than this crap.

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