Cheaper By The Dozen

Copyright © 2003 by Tony Medley

The first script submitted for this, written by Craig Titley, conformed to the original in which Clifton Webb was an efficiency expert with 12 children. The joke was that the children drove him crazy because he couldn’t manage them. The powers that be discarded Titley’s script, hired a bunch of other screenwriters, Sam Harper and Joel Cohen & Alec Sokolow, relegating Titley to a “Screen Story” credit. The new guys changed the main character’s occupation from efficiency expert to football coach. The joke is that this guy, supercilious Clifton Webb in the original, is an efficiency expert who can’t manage his own family. When his occupation changes, the joke disappears.

And that’s what’s wrong with Cheaper by the Dozen. Tom Baker (Steve Martin) is offered the job that’s his lifetime dream, coaching a Division A college football team. But it requires him to move his wife, Kate (Bonnie Hunt), a fledgling writer, and their 12 children to another city. The children hate the idea, but they go ahead.

At the same time Kate’s novel is accepted for publication. This is where the film gets absurd. Kate flies to New York to meet with the publisher. Even though she hasn’t signed a contract and has only just been informed that the publisher wants to publish it, when she arrives, her agent meets her with a hardbound copy of her book! To make matters worse, she immediately goes on a book tour. All this happens in the space of one week! I’ve written three books, all of which have been published and gone through multiple printings. From the time a publisher accepts your manuscript for publication, it can take as much as nine months before you see it in a hardbound condition with a dust cover. Then you go on a book tour. If only it were as easy and fast as the naïve screenwriters who replaced Titley imagine! To present the concept that a publisher is going to print up in hardcover a book they might want to publish might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever seen in a film. This gives you an idea of the quality of intelligence that replaced Titley, although I understand that the “book tour” idea was Hunt’s. So much for lending much credence to actors’ ideas.

Because she has to leave home to go on her book tour, Tom is left to care for the family and start his new job. His children become the children from hell. Instead of the loving, cooperative, supportive family they apparently were, they show not  the slightest respect for their father and mother and their careers and do everything possible to be devils incarnate. This is no loving family we’re seeing. It’s a bunch of selfish, sniveling monsters.

Although Martin and Hunt try, when they changed Tom’s profession, the filmmakers ruined the joke and the story. Except for a hilarious turn by Ashton Kutcher as Hank, the self-absorbed actor boy friend of eldest daughter Nora (Piper Perabo), there’s not a lot of humor, unless you like watching self-centered children torpedo their parents’ lives and careers, which I don’t.

We’ll never know if Titley’s original script would have been better than this. But since he alone seemed to understand that the joke of Cheaper by the Dozen had a lot to do with Tom’s occupation as an efficiency expert, it couldn’t have been worse, and probably would have been a lot better.

January 3, 2004

The End