"Cheaper by the Dozen" unfortunately knows no tone between schmaltzy/gooey and slapstick/gross-out. Pic is as far from the original and its autobiographical memoir source as it can be while retaining the same title. Update shows an unrecognizable contempo world that veers between group hugs and domestic demolition derbies.

Undoubtedly trying to give the audience what it wants, “Cheaper by the Dozen” unfortunately knows no tone between schmaltzy/gooey and slapstick/gross-out. Pic is as far from the original pic and its autobiographical memoir source as it can be while retaining the same title. Movies don’t come more square than the 1950 version starring Clifton Webb and Myrna Loy. Update, rather than looking at modern kids’ attitudes and today’s parents’ professional needs, shows an unrecognizable contempo world that veers between group hugs and domestic demolition derbies. Still, “Cheaper” should tap into a wide-ranging audience looking for a change from the parade of tragedies and historical epics this holiday season, making for plentiful B.O. gifts under Fox’s tree.

After 23 years of marriage and 12 kids, Tom and Kate Baker (Steve Martin, Bonnie Hunt) seem to have found domestic bliss. Over opening credits, Kate’s voiceover recalls their high school courtship and mutual desire for a big family, his sacrificing of a promising Division 1 college football coaching career (for lowly Division 3) and her departure from the newspaper game in order to raise their brood in the sylvan peace of Midland, Ill.

There’s an early glimpse of the mass chaos to come when, after a pleasantly messy but warm group project making breakfast, young pet-obsessed Mark (Forrest Landis) tries to snag his escaping frog and turns the breakfast table and kitchen into a disaster area.

Generally, though, this is as well-behaved a bunch as family units come these days, even including problem teen Charlie (Tom Welling) and fashion slave Lorraine (Hilary Duff). But when Tom gets an offer to coach a Division 1 team at Lincoln U. in Evanston, this complex nuclear unit gradually goes into meltdown.

The new two-story house near Chicago is prettier and more spacious than the old place, but the kids are grumpy from the start and soon turn into little monsters. Suddenly blind to the brewing children problems after he has been shown to be attentive to every family detail, Tom is depicted as falling into that horrible modern trap of wanting it all. So is Kate, whose new book (adorned with pic’s title) is to be published and who goes on a book tour to support it.

Key to the pitfalls of the script by Sam Harper, Joel Cohen and Alec Sokolow (from Craig Titley’s screen story) is allowing the family members to forget themselves and everything that they are. Even the Bakers’ one grown child, Nora (Piper Perabo), can’t help, especially with her current beau,self-admiring thesp Hank (Ashton Kutcher, in what’s likely the year’s biggest uncredited role), as a constant target of the tykes’ pranks. With mom away and dad on the gridiron, the clan and movie both devolve into someone’s idea of amusing comic warfare.

Since Webb’s father in original film was a picture of goofy but subdued physical and verbal comedy, Martin would seem to be ideal cast as the patriarch. But his assignment here appears wrong on every level: He’s never convincing as either a coach or disciplinarian, and never has a chance to work up any chemistry with Hunt, whose own comic charms are kept in detention. And where Martin’s most needed — as an emergency writer to salvage the script — he’s not used.

The swarm of kid thesps vie for screen time, with Landis as the odd duck (and eventual object of the sentimental finish) given some space to make an impression. Casting seems to have been based on ability and not appearance, as many of the small fry share little physical resemblance to each other or their movie parents.

Mediocre production look, as well as the nervous need to push human comedy into zoo-like antics, matches the dreadful “Just Married,” also made by the filmmaking squad of helmer Shawn Levy, producer Robert Simonds, writer Sam Harper, lenser Jonathan Brown, designer Nina Ruscio and composer Christophe Beck.

Cheaper by the Dozen

Production

A 20th Century Fox release of a Robert Simonds production. Produced by Robert Simonds, Michael Barnathan, Ben Myron. Co-producer, Ira Shuman. Directed by Shawn Levy. Screenplay, Sam Harper, Joel Cohen, Alec Sokolow, based on the novel by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey; story, Craig Titley.

Crew

Camera (Deluxe color), Jonathan Brown; editor, George Folsey; music, Christophe Beck; music supervisor, Dave Jordan; production designer, Nina Ruscio; art director, Scott Meehan; set designers, William F. Matthews, Jann K. Engel , Stephanie Gilliam, Will Batts, Mark Haber; set decorator, K.C. Fox; costume designer, Sanja Milkovic Hays ; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS), David Obermeyer; supervising sound editors, Andrew DeCristofaro; visual effects supervisor, Cosmas Paul Bolger; special effects coordinator, Dave Kelsey; special visual effects, Digital Filmworks; additional visual effects, 11:11 Mediaworks ; stunt coordinator, Ernie Orsatti; assistant director, Marty Eli Schwartz; casting, Nancy Klopper. Reviewed at the Festival Theatre, Los Angeles, Nov. 25, 2003. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 98 MIN.

With

Tom Baker - Steve Martin Kate Baker - Bonnie Hunt Nora Baker - Piper Perabo Charlie Baker - Tom Welling Lorraine Baker - Hilary Duff
With: Kevin G. Schmidt, Alyson Stoner, Jacob Smith, Liliana Mumy, Morgan York, Forrest Landis, Blake Woodruff, Brent Kinsman, Shane Kinsman, Paula Marshall, Steven Anthony Lawrence, Alan Ruck, Richard Jenkins, Regis Philbin, Kelly Ripa.

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