A Look Back: Cheaper By the Dozen

Usually when a director takes on the daunting task of transferring the magic of a beloved book to the big screen, the results are mixed. Some – such as “Cloud Atlas,” are doomed from the start – if you’ve never read the book, you will flounder as the two hour plus movie unfolds before your baffled eyes. If you pick a nonfiction book and translate it into fiction, such as with Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls, it may, against the odds, be accomplished and done well. Sometimes it’s the casting choice that torpedoes the movie, particularly if there’s political correctness involved. Then there is the truly unique situation of the updating of the book “Cheaper By the Dozen,” by Frank B. Giilbreth and Ernestine Carey Gilbreth, a memoir of life with a father obsessed with time management – that became a movie starring Steve Martin and Bonnie Hunt. If you’re familiar with the book, your response (like Roger Ebert’s) will be pure disbelief. It is entirely possible that no one associated with the remake has ever read the original source (perhaps the authors just took the deal and ran). Or perhaps not – as the movie is so diametrically the opposite. It’s almost as if they used the book as a blueprint for how not to make the movie.

“Cheaper By the Dozen,” (and its sequel “Belles on Their Toes”) rests on the premise that there were twelve children with a wacky father and more sensible mother – but upon reading the books, a shrewd reader picks up that one child makes an untimely disappearance that is never addressed, even though the dad keeps referring to the brood as “a dozen.” But that is the kind of thing you are able to forgive because it really doesn’t matter all that much. The book, which takes place in the fifties features, among other escapades, the following:

1. Dad gets the brilliant idea that he should film his children having their tonsils removed to see if the procedure can be streamlined. Unfortunately, the doctor mistakes one daughter for another, and almost murders her when they decide to operate on the one who didn’t fast the night before.

(OK, maybe it’s good that this didn’t make it into the remake.)

2. Dad realizes his oldest daughter, now a teen, has become keen on dating boys, so he insists on accompanying her on her first date and the following ones, at least for awhile, until he figures a way to gracefully get out of it. By the time the youngest daughter is dating (in “Belles”), Dad is deceased, though her brothers make her dates bring her home really early. When she complains, her mother isn’t sympathetic.

The book father may have some bizarre ideas on child-raising, but his basic competence as a parent is not called into question. However, in the remake, the filmmakers take the easy route by having Steve Martin portray the father as your typical clueless sitcom clod. The mother (Bonnie Hunt) is still level-headed, and the kids are adorable, but it’s clearly her that keeps everything running smoothly. When Steve gets a new job as a school football coach and Bonnie’s new book is successful, the kids (too many actors and actresses to list here) are forced to move across the country, moreover, when Bonnie jaunts off on a book tour, Dad is forced to act like an adult. He’s naturally overwhelmed, so he’s forced to rely on the help of his oldest daughter (Piper Perabo) who lives independently and who brings along her boyfriend (Ashton Kutcher, uncredited and after watching the film, it’s not a mystery why). Wacky high jinx follow. Eventually, everyone learns a valuable lesson about sticking together. Cue the group hug.

I realize that updating the book from the fifties to Y2K may pose a challenge, but I still can’t figure out why Steve chose to play the father that way. He’s very good at it, of course, but it’s too bad because he is indistinguishable from all the other movie/tv dads who love their kids but have absolutely no practical parenting skills. But the movie got a sequel (again with no resemblance to the original’s sequel), so maybe I am being a bit too harsh.

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