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Cheaper by the Dozen

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“Claire,” my housemate said, turning to me to impart a truth which was clearly as self-evident to her as all men are created equal had been to the Founding Fathers, “you are a contradiction.”

It’s true. I am. Cynical yet sentimental. Totally lacking a sense of balance, yet a keen cyclist. Able to tell you in some detail about Earl Warren’s time as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, yet unable to adjust the height of an office chair without causing serious personal injury.

My housemate was never more right than when it comes to my tastes in pop culture. Make no mistake – amongst my favourites, I do have many which are widely regarded as worthy. Pop culture is, indeed, the only field in which I consider myself to be In The Know. I can talk for some time about TV, film, and music, and not look like a complete idiot. For me, that’s somewhat of a novelty.

Unfortunately, for every yin, there is a yang. And so it is that there is a dark pop culture side to me. It’s what I call the Should Know Better side.

The Should Know Better side has dire consequences when it comes to listing what I enjoy. The Should Know Better side means that for every Larry David, there is a Dawson’s Creek. For every Memento, there is a Mighty Ducks and a Mr Holland’s Opus. For every Teitur, there is a weird enjoyment of Britney Spears’ Toxic. I know that, in each instance, the latter is the vastly inferior example of the genre. But – God help me – deep down inside of me, there’s something which means I just can’t help but sort of enjoy them.

It’s a strange phenomenon, I know – I blame a childhood school holiday diet of made for TV real-life movies, and Saved By The Bell reruns. Also, my mother liked Dallas. Maybe there’s some nature aspect to this condition, as well as a nurture aspect.

Knowing this about me, it should come as no surprise to hear that, on preview weekend, I found myself at the cinema to watch the Steve Martin/Bonnie Hunt vehicle Cheaper by the Dozen. It should also come as no surprise to hear that my previous visit to the cinema had been to watch the critically lauded Lost in Translation. Sofia Coppola’s mighty movie had satisfied my respectable side and I loved every minute of it. But the Should Know Better side needed nourishment too, and in Cheaper by the Dozen, it was going to enjoy a twelve course feast.

As I plonked myself down in my seat with my popcorn and my candy floss, cursing the child next to me who had managed to tread (heavily) on my ingrown toenail and was now causing a ruckus, I knew exactly what to expect. This was going to be a Film-Making-By-Numbers family comedy, and I was prepared to tick each box. I wasn’t disappointed.

The film opens with a voiceover from the vastly underrated Bonnie Hunt, setting the scene on this crazy family. Within the first few minutes of the film, therefore, it had satisfied an important criterion for a family comedy. Sentimental scene-setting voiceover – check.

As we got introduced to the family, more boxes could be checked. Steve Martin as an eccentric yet lovable father. Bonnie Hunt as the sensible but fun mother. Tom Welling (TV’s Smallville) and Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire) as two of the kids in a cunning casting move designed to appeal to appeal to the tweenager crowd. Amongst the other siblings, there was a heavy child, a shy child, a studious child. Check, check, check. Cute four year old twins with lisps. That was the Jonathan Lipnicki requirement covered. Dad is a football coach – lovely, that sets up a nice conflict between his dedication to his team on the field, and his team at home. Mom is an author – wonderful, that will set up a conflict between her burgeoning career and her family needs. Within the first ten minutes, I could see that this film was right on track.

The family, of course, has a lovely, huge house with lots of nooks and crannies – so much the better for eavesdropping on Mom and Dad’s conversations, and for slapstick high jinks (which predictably ensued quickly and frequently.)

The plot is well hidden amongst the food fights and falling overs, but there is one. Dad is offered a new job as a football coach at his old college – his dream job, in fact – and so the family uproots to a new home. The kids are far from happy about the move, and things become more difficult when Mom goes off on a national booktour – leaving Steve Martin’s overwhelmed father to cope, for the first time, alone. Predictably, he doesn’t manage it and, predictably, both parents realise in the end that the most important thing to them is not their careers, but their family. It’s a resonant enough message in an age of parents trying to juggle family/work commitments, even if they seem to be able to afford a very nice house and have no financial problems despite their massive brood.

The major sub-plot revolves around the shy child. Nicknamed Fed-Ex by his siblings because they believe he was delivered one night and isn’t part of the family, it’s obvious from the outset that, at some point, he is going to run away. You can tell because he wears glasses, feels closer to his pet frog than to his family and because – for some reason never adequately explained – Steve Martin finds it impossible to remember his name. I found this rather strange but, I realise now, I have no idea what the kid’s name is either, so maybe I was being a little harsh.

As the child picks the room at the top of the new house, hidden away from the rest and as each time Bonnie Hunt gets distracted just when she’s giving him some much needed attention, you can see that Mark (ah – I believe that was his name) will be the one to show the bickering brood how much they love one another.

So it is.

Mark runs off, Steve Martin remembers a picture the child had drawn of his favourite place (see, Dad does care after all) and off the family go to reclaim the missing child. And that includes the oldest daughter who had tried to break away – with a boyfriend, played by Ashton Kutcher in an amusing cameo which for a split second made me not hate him – but who of course had realised how important her family was to her.

They of course find the child, explain how much they love him, and soon enough Steve Martin is quitting his job and finding another one so they can move back home and be one big happy family all over again.

Yes, Cheaper by the Dozen certainly manages to check all the right boxes. It’s utterly predictable, and instantly forgettable (it’s no coincidence that I have mentioned no character names – I can’t remember them.)

But, for the two hours or so I was sitting in that cinema, wondering if I should tread on the kid’s foot so she’d know how it felt, I was enjoying myself. The film was forgettable. I have no real desire to every watch it again. It offered no real insight into the human psyche.

But, for a couple of hours, it transported me into an easier world where everything was cheery, where I knew what was going to happen, and where there was always going to be a happy ending. And that has to count for something.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to order my copy of Lost in Translation on DVD, and to watch my copy of Hoosiers. What can I tell you? I’m a contradiction.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Aren’t we all, Claire? Very nice job and welcome!