Cheaper By The Dozen opens as Steve Martin jogs across a Midwestern landscape. In the context of what follows, the sequence seems like a desperate attempt to prove his continued vitality, like when the Chinese government published pictures of an aged Mao swimming the Yellow River. The next scene better sets the tone. Seeing him winded from his run, wife Bonnie Hunt jokingly asks, "Need a paramedic?" Martin's response: "Just a pair of knees." To expand on the title of one of Martin's old comedy albums, comedy is not pretty, but does it have to be this ugly? Cheaper By The Dozen is based, loosely, on a beloved memoir by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, two children of a large family raised at the turn of the century by a colorful efficiency expert and his multitalented wife. Director Shawn Levy and his small handful of screenwriters have left little but the title and the big family. Set in modern-day Illinois, Cheaper stars Martin as a beleaguered patriarch and small-college football coach prone to making wisecracks and looking exasperated as child actors run amok around him. Though he professes contentment, Martin decides to uproot the family when his Division I alma mater calls him up for a big-time coaching job. While his kids struggle to cut it on the mean streets of Evanston, Hunt gets called away to promote her book, a collection of humorous parenting anecdotes titled Cheaper By The Dozen. Much of the film feels like watching Home Alone and Mr. Mom on 12 different TVs at once: Frogs dive into scrambled eggs, chandeliers take repeated falls, and though the kids are too old for dirty-diaper jokes, the film compensates with puke gags. In mugging-intensive performances, Martin, Hunt, and Ashton Kutcher (as the boyfriend of Martin's grown-up daughter Piper Perabo) all serve as terrible role models for the younger cast members, who have apparently been coached that this sort of family film needs the ham left on the bone. (Ratcheting her performance up to 11, teenage mini-mogul Hilary Duff makes for a particularly offensive presence.) The only heart comes from misfit Harry Potter lookalike Forrest Landis, as a kid teasingly nicknamed "FedEx" by his siblings, who question whether he was dropped off by some other family. He should be so lucky.
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