Review: ‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ is not a bargain at any price
The new “Cheaper by the Dozen” feels less like a feature than a lengthy sitcom pilot. It’s an assembly-line product scrubbed clean of personality.
This is supposedly the third film iteration of the 1948 semiautobiographical novel of the same name, though it has nothing to do with previous versions apart from concerning an unusually large family. The names, occupations, period, ethnicities — even the number of children — all have changed (here “Dozen” apparently refers to 10 kids plus two adults, though there are sort of four adults, and that kills the title joke … whatever). This is a blended family with two saintly parents (Zach Braff as Paul and Gabrielle Union as Zoey) running a diner where most of the kids work.
Brace yourself for copious mugging, every beat at a pitch. The aggressive perkiness is exhausting. Perhaps it’s all appropriately engineered for its target audience, whomever that may be.
What really saps any hope of likability is that it’s actually not about family or parenting or even the kids, and certainly not the extraordinary, every-day challenges of raising such a large brood. The house is eerily clean and quiet for containing 10 children. While financial struggles are instantaneously cured by a deus ex machina, the emotional toll of such a daunting task is hardly acknowledged. And the inner lives of the kids are barely explored. They’re props, more or less. Emotional truth is sacrificed at the altar of manufactured laffs, with two fs.
There’s an unappealing storyline about Paul being insecure about Zoey’s NFL-superstar ex. That’s abruptly shelved, replaced by the conflict-generating widget of the business taking off and Paul devoting more time to it. For no thought-out reason, Paul declines to include Zoey in basic discussions, despite her marketing degree.
“Thanks for being so average and relatable, Paul,” spoken by one of the kids, is one of the few funny lines, but it’s also apropos on a meta level: Paul seems to have been focus-grouped into the statistically average, nonthreatening, nice-guy model.
Braff and Union are appealing performers with honed comic timing; Braff’s delivery and physical comedy are still there and Union is fun to watch. But there’s no chemistry — seemingly by design. Probably limbo-ing under some clinically tested level of sexy thought, with no visceral attraction allowed. There’s one moment in which they contemplate getting it on, but it’s quickly torpedoed by all those ain’t-they-cute kids piling on their bed.
The film manages a few crumbs of social commentary, as when Zoey tells her young Black kids they can’t take their toy guns out of the house, immediately followed by images of white kids doing just that. But that’s not explored or even explained for those who might need to hear that that’s a thing.
As always, June Diane Raphael steals scenes, this time as a “Karen”-type neighbor. But while the film’s theme is purportedly “family über alles,” it also contains materialistic messages, not calling out behavior such as the kids receiving gifts from Dad after a long absence, then running out instead of connecting with him.
With this “Cheaper,” it’s buyer beware.
'Cheaper by the Dozen'
Rated: PG for thematic elements, suggestive material and language
Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes
Playing: Streaming March 18 on Disney+
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