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Wednesday 31 December 2003

Cheaper By The Dozen

I cannot, in all honesty, recommend that this movie be seen by anyone. To begin with, the movie blows chunks: there are a few funny Steve Martin moments, and Ashton Kucher gives such a good performance — uncredited, despite the fact that he plays a major character — that it seems like he’s in another movie (a good one), but on the whole, this one just plain stinks.

But that’s not actually the worst of it. Cheaper By The Dozen was a 1950 memoir written by brother and sister Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, about their actual experiences growing up in a family of twelve children.

Their mother and father, Frank B. (Sr.) and Lillian Gilbreth, were the parents (no pun intended) of the field of motion study, and pioneers in management consulting, ergonomics, and industrial efficiency. Lillian Gilbreth in particular was no slouch, given what was expected of women in her day: she invented and patented, among other things, refrigerator-door sheves, the electric food mixer, and the trash can with a pedal for opening the lid. In their time, both Gilbreths were internationally famous, and their experiments, methods, and discoveries are still taught today.

None of this, though, is in the movie, even in filtered-and-adapted form. It’s rather as if you went to see a movie called Catcher In The Rye, advertised as being based on a novel by J.D. Salinger, and you found that it was about a happy-go-lucky, non-smoking, non-drinking nice poor Southern boy named Holden Caulfield who does well in school and who goes around telling everyone that it’s important to present a happy face to the world and to fit in, no matter what. You might feel that you had been misled, were you to see that movie.

The book Cheaper By The Dozen, and the 1950 movie of the same name, are about how the Gilbreths applied their interest in and knowledge of motion-study and efficiency to the challenge of raising twelve children. The 2003 movie is about a family with twelve children, but — I am not exaggerating in the slightest here — that is the only resemblance to the book’s story. Where the book and original movie were explicitly about how the Gilbreths applied their intelligence and the discoveries they made in the course of their wildly-successful professional lives to the challenge of raising twelve children, the current movie is about how these bumbling parents can only barely hang on by devoting themselves entirely, and exclusively, to their kids.

The current movie is about a family named Baker, of which the paterfamilias is a small-time college football coach, and the mother is a homemaker. There are twelve unbelievably bratty children, who only get worse when the family moves to Chicago when Dad is offered a job coaching at a very, very thinly-veiled version of Northwestern University. Mom has written a book about the experience of raising twelve children, and it’s accepted by a publisher shortly after the move. Mom reluctantly embarks on an instantly-launched two-week promotional tour, and things fall apart immediately.

What with Dad working hard, and with Mom gone for two whole weeks, the kids — who, remember, are supposed to have always lived in a family of fourteen — are all starved for attention. Dad has a high-paying job (the current actual head football coach at Northwestern is paid a base salary of $800,000 per year), but there’s no domestic help in evidence, no maid, no nanny, no nothing. During the first week of Mom’s absence, the youngest kids assault their teacher, the middle kids get into a fight, and the oldest kid gets kicked off the high-school football team and threatens to drop out of school altogether so he can return to their erstwhile hometown to be with his old girlfriend. Oh, and Northwester, uh, Illinois Polytechnic loses a football game by three points, and Dad is immediately threatened with the loss of his job unless he gets his priorities straight. Clearly Dad can’t handle the challenge.

The kids go nuts in Mom’s absence, at one point throwing a hatchet through a closet door in the front hall. The only visible punishment for any of them comes only after the teacher-assault/fight/football team episode mentioned above: they’re grounded. The very next day, they all climb down a rope from the second story of the house to attend (and destroy) a birthday party across the street. There’s no visible punishment for this, but the next day they call a radio show that Mom is on as part of her book tour, and demand that she come home immediately — then destroying the telephone in the process of a fight over who will get to talk to Mom on the air after the initial demand.

Mom cuts short her book tour, to her publisher’s dismay, and comes home. Matters don’t improve much, so at least the movie doesn’t fall entirely into the highly-paid-Dad-is-really-a-bumbling-idiot-but-homemaker-Mom-is-a-saint trap. Things only get better after Dad quits his million-dollar-a-year job and gets another (unspecified) one. In the closing scene of the movie, the kids are shown happily gamboling about the yard, apparently now happy living in Evanston.

So it’s a terrible, terrible movie. Adaptations of books to the screen nearly always suffer to some extent, but usually you can tell that the screenwriters at least read the book. I have no doubt that they actually read the book in this case, but you would never know it; this isn’t so much an adaptation of the book as it’s an adaptation — a liberal adaptation — of the promotional copy on the back of the book.

But this isn’t actually the most offensive part. The true horror comes from the central message of the movie, if it can be said to have one at all:

Parents must dedicate themselves, but totally, to their children, even to the extent of changing their job and giving up their dreams if their children demand it. Children, if they are unhappy with any aspect of their lives, are justified in wreaking any sort of havoc they like in order to get their way, instantly.

It’s the brats’ immediate desires that drive the plot; when Dad is improbably offered the job in Evanston, he makes the decision to take it not just because it’s always been his dream to coach at his alma mater, but because the huge salary and housing allowance would make life better for the kids. In podunk, they seem to be sharing a single bathroom, and their clothes are literally falling to pieces.

But when the first week of the school year in a new place presents some challenges — the two high-school kids are made fun of for driving an old beater and for being from a small town, for example — the kids rebel. Ordinarily, they are, all of them, totally helpless. When it comes to attempting to drive away the oldest sister’s boyfriend, or getting their dad fired, or getting Mom to come back home (rather than waiting another whole week), though, they are capable of some ingenuity.

The offensiveness derives from the cynical beliefs that went into this movie. The book is about how two parents applied knowledge and a systematic approach to raising their large brood; the movie is about how two parents living seventy years later, with all the labor-saving gadgetry that implies, cannot pull off the same thing to save their lives. Let me just restate that: the book, written in 1950 about actual events that all occurred before 1924, is about possibility and success. The movie, fictional and from 2003, is about constraint and failure.

Presumably the movie was heavily focus-grouped, specifically designed to show the viewers what they said they wanted. And I think that the result says something bothersome about the times in which we are living.

In the early-twentieth-century setting of the book and first movie, your options were severely restricted: women could only do certain things, society said; children should behave a certain way; certain subjects were acceptable for polite conversation, and certain others were not; and so on.

Today, we have a society in which you are, ostensibly, free to live your life the way you choose to live it — but while enduring being constantly told that you’re Doing It Wrong. A hundred years ago, there was at least one approved way to live; now, none. The movie at hand looks down not only on the family with a dozen children who don’t get enough attention, but on the family living across the street from them, who have a doted-on only child. No matter what you do, you’re going to fail: and nowhere does our society believe this more firmly than in the raising of children.

Drive a big car? You’re doing harm to your children’s future by polluting the atmosphere, and you’re posing a danger to pedestrians (who are assumed in the scold literature to be largely children, though my experience does not bear this out). Drive a small car? You’re putting your children at risk of injury in an accident.

Provide amply for your children? You’re spoiling them. Teach them the value of a dollar? You’re depriving them.

Take a close interest in your child’s life? He’ll turn out to be a mama’s boy. Leave him to make his own decisions? Well, then, he’ll almost certainly wind up doing lots of drugs (or, in the case of a daughter, wind up doing lots of drugs and then getting pregnant).

Keep your child inside and in sight? He’ll wind up playing too many video games, and he’ll be unsocialized and fat. Let him run around outside? He’ll undoubtedly be abducted by a superpredator or pederast, or will himself become a criminal. Oh, yeah, and: drugs.

We’ve always had social constraints on what we could do, of course. In many places, it’s not actually illegal to run around naked in the streets, but very few people do so. Why? Because it’s just not done. You’d look like a fool.

In the past, though, there’s usually been one set of social constraints at a time; today, we’ve got a whole contradictory bundle of them all at the same time. No matter what you do, you’ll be Doing It Wrong according to someone, who will not hesitate to let you know this.

Posted by tino at 15:10 31.12.03
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I just got down wathing the Movie CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN and thought it was great, Ashton Kutcher did a great job playing the boyfriend of the parents oldest daughter, Nora. and to watch those average 12 kids run a muck in a rich and well to do upscale neighborhood is just too funny, we need more families like this here In Indianapolis. Therefore anyone reading this and has a family this large, come visit us all in INdianapolis, or you can share your personal stories, comments about this movie, your family or life in general, just e-mail CoalChamber721@cs.com IF if you just want to write one sentence and complain about your boss, or how the lady at your local department store really upset you, will read all. ALways also enjoy writing and corresponding to all. Take Care and hope to hear from you and any one else that wants to share their input about the movie Cheaper By the Dozen.
TRIP Indianapolis, Indiana

Posted by: at October 26, 2004 02:05 PM