Friday, May 17, 2024

‘Cheaper by the Dozen’ Broadens the Meaning of Family

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Cheaper by the Dozen is a movie that has been remade three times, twice in my lifetime. This isn’t a complaint, merely an observation; some things remain timeless. Admittedly, I haven’t seen either the 2003 or the 1950 version, both of which have sequels. These movies are part of a very niche subgenre of family films about large sprawling families trying to live together under one roof, a subgenre that has evolved along with our culture’s definition of family.

Gail Lerner’s remake has a broad sense of humor and mainly involves incredibly low stakes in which everything turns out fine by the end. However, her remake is the first adaptation to portray a true blended family. Not too surprising, considering “Black-ish” creator Kenya Barris is one of the co-writers of the script along with Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry, herself a producer of the show and an executive producer for “The Game.” 

Lerner herself is a television producer, making Cheaper by the Dozen her film debut. I mention all this because the film feels like a series of sitcom episodes. You can almost clock how long each situation will last before it is either resolved or dropped to be picked up later on as the movie begins to wrap up.

cheaper by the dozen
Paul (Zach Braff) and Zoey (Gabrielle Union) try and psyche each other up before their day begins

Paul (Zach Braff) and Zoey (Gabrielle Union) have children from previous marriages. Paul was married to Kate (Erika Christensen). They had Ella (Kylie Rogers) and Harley (Caylee Blosenski), who also adopted their Godson Haresh (Aryan Simhadri) after his parents, Paul and Kate’s best friends, were killed by a drunk driver. Zoey was married to Dom (Timon Kyle Durrett) and had Deja (Journee Brown) and DJ (Andre Robinson). Paul and Zoey then have two sets of twins of their own, Luna (Mykal-Michelle Harris) and Luca (Leo A. Perry), followed by Bronx (Sebastian Cote) and Bailey (Christian Cote).

If you’re keeping track, you’ll realize that’s only eleven kids. The twelfth one Seth (Luke Prael), is the son of Paul’s sister, who they take in after she checks into rehab, making it an even dozen. If you’re wondering about the title, it comes from the book the original 1950 movie is adapted from of the same name by Frank B. Gilbreth Jr. and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey. Supposedly, when someone asked Frank why he had so many kids, he would stop and think before saying, “Well, they come cheaper by the dozen, you know.”

A joke that has only grown more darkly sardonic over time. As much as Barris and Henry attempt to address the myriad of issues that afflict such a sprawling multi-generational, multi-ethnic family, the cost of supporting such a vast family, while ultimately the plot’s driving force, is never taken all that seriously. After all, the resolution to their problems involves Paul, who runs and operates an all-day Breakfast restaurant with his family, markets his special sauce, which does so well they can move from Los Angels to the Calabasas. To give you some idea of the context, Calabasas is where Kim Kardashian once lived. 

cheaper by the dozen
Zoey (Union) and her family in their home

But this brings back to the sitcom roots of all involved. Cheaper by the Dozen operates on a sitcom reality, meaning it addresses real-world situations within an ideal framework usually involving middle-to upper-middle-class characters. Still, the point of Cheaper by the Dozen isn’t to be cinema verite but to be a slice of harmless escapism the whole family can enjoy. Measured by that, the film is a fun little family drama about overcoming adversity and coming together at the end to move back to L.A. because rich people are the worst.

I can’t fault one of the underlying philosophies of Cheaper by the Dozen, which is that breakfast food is the best food. A belief the movie holds so firmly that when Paul’s investors suggest he add some soups to the menu, it is treated as an affront to good taste it is. The absolute gall of some people.

Lerner does a good job juggling a veritable MCU-sized cast of characters. But owing to the film’s loose structure, a few characters tend to get lost in the shuffle. Ella, the influencer-wannabe, and her sister Harley, a disabled person who uses a wheelchair, have little to do aside from accusing Seth of being a thief. It’s nice to see a disabled person, played by a disabled actor, who exists and doesn’t serve as an inspiration or symbol of goodness and purity. Blosenski’s Harley is a surly teenager who starts a punk band, helped by Ella’s Instagram account. However, this is from the prologue-not the movie itself.

It’s understandable why this isn’t tackled as much of Cheaper by the Dozen deals with Paul and Dom’s jealousy of each other, Dom, an NFL quarterback, and Paul, played by Zach Braff. Zoey is also dealing with Paul’s ex-wife living with them, both because that is awkward and because she is a free nanny. Other storylines involve Haresh being picked on at school, DJ having a crush on a girl, and Deja going from the star basketball player at her old school to a bench rider at her new one due to classism and implied racism.

cheaper by the dozen
The Bakers dealing with everything as they always do: together

Barris and Henry’s script lunges from one minor drama to another, often without any resolution, as if it will be addressed later in the season. The ones addressed are done so, with both characters delivering heartfelt monologues in which everyone has learned their lesson. Cheaper by the Dozen, while enjoyable, cute, and genuinely funny at times, feels like an entire truncated season of television condensed into one made for tv movie.

None of this is to say it doesn’t work. On the contrary, the cast has far too many talented people not to make it work. Lerner does a decent job understanding what situations call for montages with voice-overs and what requires and medium shot with sentimental music playing. In addition, she understands how to let the comedy play out, which is not as straightforward or as common as one would hope.

One scene has Union’s Zoey meeting the other rich housewives as they commit micro-aggression after micro-aggression. She tries to rise above it and instead joins in venting about the hardships of being a mom. “People have so many pre-conceived notions about my kids. That, like, that they’re not mine or there’s too many of them, or they’re too wild!” Half a dozen of her kids then race past, chasing one of their dogs, screaming in delight as the other mothers look on, wondering whose kids those are. Finally, Zoey tries to change the subject, “Oh, look at that, it’s wine o’clock!”

It’s clever and shows the push and pull of defending your kids while also being slightly exasperated by them, especially if your husband is off with a couple of investors trying to turn your family restaurant into a franchise chain. But, don’t worry; everyone will have learned a valuable lesson by the end, and the whole family will have moved back to Los Angeles.

Cheaper by the Dozen is a sweet family movie that tries to pull at your heartstrings but works best when it’s just sitting back watching its characters interact. Unfortunately, Lerner can’t quite get her arms around such an outsized cast, making it feel as some are just left out. But, at the very least, the film understands that the traditional family is outdated and that breakfast food stands above all others. I couldn’t agree more.

Images courtesy of Disney +

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