PG. It's got some pretty juvenile humor. Family movie night is starting to kill the MPAA section of this blog because all I can say is "child endangerment"? Also, it's implied that the oldest sister is sleeping with her boyfriend out of wedlock. Okay, I'll go there. I remember clamming up pretty tight, hoping that my kids wouldn't notice that little bit in the movie. But the movie is pretty tame. One of the kids is bullied by the rest of the family. Okay. PG.
DIRECTOR: Shawn Levy
Confession time: This isn't the first time I've seen this movie. I saw it...in the theaters, I think? "But Tim," you may be asking, "you didn't have kids in 2003." That is accurate. This is not a point of pride. This is more a matter of I was a big Smallville fan and it was college. I had nothing to do and I wanted to see a movie on the cheap at my local theater. So, I saw it. For Tom Welling. Yeah, that happened. Do you understand that I watched everything? Post-college, I would sometimes just drive to the movie theater, which had $5.00 matinees and just see the next movie playing, assuming I hadn't already seen it. "They were the best of times, they were the worst of times."
I think we still have this kind of movie, despite being super evolved / devolved in 2020. Now that I'm a parent, and a pretty intense one at that, I don't know if I love the Mr. Mom kind of movies. Admittedly, Cheaper by the Dozen is a pretty mild offender on that list. But we still live in a world where Dad is considered the alternate parent. It's the mom who is supposed to cook, clean, manage the house, while Dad sits on the couch. I really applaud Cheaper by the Dozen to respect the idea that Dad must do as much if not more than Mom. But it only really respects that rule when it wants to. The movie starts off with Steve Martin's Tom Baker, not to be confused with the Fourth (or whatever number thanks to the Timeless Child) Doctor, being super dad. He rolls with the punches and is able to handle a household with the support of his spouse. He really has no flaws outside of wondering "what if?" From his perspective, his life is stressful but awesome. Bonnie Hunt's Kate is the perfect spouse for him. They make a ton of sense because they're on the same page. But the movie somehow shifts out of this attitude and creates a new paradigm that is ultimately unfair. I'm writing this from the adult's perspective. While I don't have 12 children, I do have three with one more on the way. My wife probably picks these movies with large families to get me comfortable with large families. Spoiler alert: it's not working. But the new paradigm is that Dad isn't allowed to care about himself ever.
It's a really weird message. It's all done for laughs, but I do want to look at it from a wish fulfillment perspective. Parenting is all about sacrifice. If you aren't sacrificing for your spouse and your kids, you probably aren't doing it right. The movie even establishes this as the moral of the film in the opening narration. Tom and Kate moved from the big city and their dream jobs to take care of their large families. Now that they are old enough to stop having kids, when an opportunity falls in their laps, they go for it. Tom gets to coach his dream team (I can't relate to this moment at all) and Bonnie gets to go on a book tour for her riveting book about raising twelve kids. (I know that Cheaper by the Dozen was based on a book by the Gilbraiths. I was in a stage production of it in high school where I technically played the Ashton Kutcher role.) Tom, as part of his giving attitude, agrees to make it work, allowing Bonnie to go off and to do her book tour while Tom is responsible for twelve kids. Mayhem ensues or else it wouldn't be a family comedy. But the thing is, the movie devolves the characters a bit. Tom refuses to ask his wife for help because he doesn't want her to sacrifice her dreams any more than she already has. He sees his own dreams slipping away and he makes the morally good choice to say that he refuses to let this person that he married. But throughout the film, Tom is punished for this action. Bonnie returns home and chastises him for this decision. He is villainized because he can't manage a family. Instead of feeling any sympathy for Tom, who is continually tortured throughout the film, there's supposed to be this life lesson that he's meant to grasp out of this.
The argument could be made that Tom's sin is not seeing a marriage as a partnership. But really, he's in a Kobiyashi Maru situation here. If he calls Kate and says that things aren't going well, he's dumping responsibility on another in place for his own dreams of coaching a team. If he doesn't, it looks like he is neglecting the good of his children. But the children, and this is really the burnt out quarantine dad in me coming out, really aren't attempting to make his life better. Charlie, whom I from this point on will be referring to simply as Tom Welling, actively spites his father. He's passive aggressive throughout. I wish I could say that this isn't reality, but that's how things work. I really get grumpy sometimes with people, even thought it might not be their faults. But to give Charlie a free pass and say that his life is terrible when he's really kind of the bad guy of the story is bad. The younger kids are allowed to torture Tom all day. They're little kids. It's not their faults that they want to have frogs in cereal boxes or whatever. But there are a lot of older kids in this group who come across as charming when really, they're just dumping all of the moral responsibility on Tom, who is doing his best in an impossible situation. Here is me, not knowing the details of how things work. Tom wasn't a stay-at-home dad at the beginning of the movie. He was the coach of a winning Division III football team. He was there a lot and his family supported him. They all move against their will to where Tom can be the coach of a Division I team. While I understand that there's probably more to do with the Division I team, the kids are older and everyone's more of an expert at being a big family. Why is the focus of the movie Tom?
It's fun to laugh at Steve Martin dealing with nonsense. I love the neighbors and the contrast between their spoiled one kid and their unruly dozen. But the movie should really focus on Tom Welling and Hilary Duff. These characters really run along side the movie instead of actively participating in it. These two teenage characters have a lot on their plate, transitioning to a new school. But there's very little in terms of people who have dealt with large families over time. Tom technically never truly breaks the moral codes of what is expected of him. Really, he's having a very difficult two weeks. I had a 5-year-old and a baby last year for two weeks and it is very difficult to do anything with no help. But Tom Welling and Hilary Duff are there. (I will also call her Hilary Duff because Hilary Duff doesn't read this blog...as far as I know. Oh my gosh, can you imagine?) There is a moral story there, but it is completely focused in the wrong place. I can attest to this because there's no choices that Steve Martin could make throughout the film that would make the moral result any better or worse. Instead, if Tom Welling and Hilary Duff actually stood up and became the new parents of the house, there's all kinds of moral choices to be made. It becomes a tale of adolescence versus childhood versus adulthood. It's this liminal time where character defining moments are made. But that's where comedy falls apart.
Cheaper by the Dozen's fundamental problem isn't that it is a bad movie. It's just that it really strives not to challenge. Making Steve Martin the protagonist in isolation is really safe call for a fun family film. We know that Steve Martin can handle family friendly comedy. It's also hilarious to see what issues and problems Dad can deal with in a crummy situation. But the movie would actually kind of step into something interesting if the film were spearheaded by people who had to make life choices that really affected them. Instead, we're suppose to have Steve Martin feel guilty for getting offered a truly remarkable job and reinforce that by having Bonnie Hunt rip him apart for not being able to handle a nearly no-win scenario? I think a character really needs to have made a mistake to have such harsh criticism put upon him. To a certain extent, I'm defending dadhood. I'm really tired of clumsy dad not being as good as mom. I'm really not going to be talking meninism because those guys suck. But the only thing that Steve Martin does wrong in the movie is that he's the male parent. His incompetence comes when it is funny to be incompetent. But nothing in his character background really builds up to that moment. Can't a dad be super successful and have a job? It's not like he doesn't come home at the end of the day? He goes to work and takes care of kids. He's been doing that his entire life. Now that some of the kids are older, they should be able to help out around the house, leaving Tom to go and do an interview from time-to-time.
But it's a fun movie, kind of. It's not a work of genius. It's a random enough film to watch with the kids without producing any real guffaws. The problem with analysis is that you have to look at it from another perspective. If you are watching this movie to entertain your kids for shy of two hours, it does the job.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.