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Cheaper By The Dozen

For a 3-dimensional view of the actual daily routines of a huge family that does not enjoy Ethel Kennedy's money, go with the book. If you don't mind sad pics during the holiday season, you might check out Vadim Perelman's "House of Sand and Fog." But if movies like "Elf" are your ticket during Christmas, "Cheaper by the Dozen" is your destination. The only fatality in this story adapted by Craig Titley from the famed memoir is that of Beanie the frog. Otherwise, no-one gets even a cold (imagine paying doctor bills for fourteen people?) And despite some expected teen rebelliousness of the I-hate-you-dad variety, Steve Martin does an effective job of playing the dozens. As Thomas Baker, Martin at the age of 58 is somewhat long in the tooth to have kids as young as six years old and has quite a few years on Bonnie Hunt, who at the age of 39 inhabits the role of his much laboring wife Kate. They had hoped for eight kids, but somehow because, as Thomas says, "I couldn't get her off me," they were egged on to fill a dozen slots.

Thomas Baker, now a football coach rather than a factory efficiency expert, has a dream: to coach the team of the Illinois Polytechnic University, moving up from his current gig coaching high school ball in the more rural digs of Midland, Illinois. Everybody's happy in Midland, so much so that Kate is able to pen a book about her brood which turns into a best-seller. But when Tom is offered a dream job coaching college ball with a five-year contract, a large, paid-for house and good money, he drags his people kicking and screaming to the Windy City, ultimately realizing Christmas-movie-story wise that if there's a conflict between career and family, guess which comes first?

The young 'uns may share genes and environs but director Levy successfully differentiates them. Tom Welling's Charlie, the teen male of the group, is ready to leave home when he can't get along with his bullying school-mates while teen daughter Hilary Duff's Lorraine is "totally" into this or that, taking her time with makeup to her sibs' frustration. Brent and Shane Kinsman take on the roles of twins Nigel and Kyle, a real handful as the production notes confirm, while the stand-out performance is from Forrest Landis as Mark, the kid called FedEx because he does not appear to fit in with the family and is given his nickname because he must have been delivered by truck at 10:30 a.m. and not by the stork.

Well, OK, "Cheaper by the Dozen" rests on a single concept: that hand-me-downs and busy bathrooms, uptight neighbors (such as the prim couple with an repressed kid, Dylan), are not comparable in manufacturing stress to the core issue; which is, how to show both affection and discipline to offspring ages 6 to 20, each with his or her own mind. Since the movie is targeted to the small fry, oh, say from 6 to 12, there isn't a heck of a lot of made-for-adult undertones. Pratfalls, as expected, make up the bulk of the comic situations: people swing on chandeliers and fall from them; the dog (Gunner) attacks the oldest girl Nora's boyfriend, because the kids secretly soaked his underwear in a vat of hamburger.

Pert Bonnie Hunt will hardly pass muster with the cognoscenti in the audience as a woman who has gone through labor eleven times, nor does Steve Martin look much like a college football coach. But Martin, whose Tom Baker character as a frazzled dad still bewildered by the size of his family and holding on to a dream does cross the finish line as the sentimental (but not cloying) paterfamilias whose affection for every last one in the house is sorely tested and triumphs.

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