Thanks to Disney+, Cheaper by the Dozen movies are now cheaper by the third-of-a-dozen. This new-faces-same-old-idea outing is the fourth such movie, counting the 1950 original, 2003 remake and 2005 sequel to the remake. But the new one is notable, I guess, for featuring a mixed-race family led by Zach Braff and Gabrielle Union, rendering it far more 21st-century than the previous two 21st-century Cheaper by the Dozens – and with a fresh menu of lightly comedic situations to cull from, one assumes. Let’s find out for sure.
The Gist: Here’s the story of a lovely lady who met this fellow: Zoey (Union) had two kids before she split with Dom (Ron Funches) because he’s a star football player who was never home. Paul (Braff) is a restaurateur who had two kids with yoga dingbat Kate (Erika Christensen) and they adopted a third before they divorced. Zoey came into Paul’s restaurant one fateful day and inspired him to serve breakfast all the time – breakfast, then breakfast lunch, then breakfast dinner. (Actually a pretty inspired idea.) It was love. They got married and she helped him run the restaurant and then they had twins – twice. Fertile bunch here. Also, a bunch of Democrats, because their two dogs are named Bark Obama and Joe Bitin’. Please don’t ask me to sort out the children – only a few of them have anything resembling “arcs,” and the youngest ones all blur together into a pre-adolescent mass of quasi-comic relief.
I can see you counting right now. Take away the exes, and the Baker family only numbers 11. We’ll get to that, don’t worry. For now it’s time to explain how Paul and Zoey get out of bed every morning and go room to room rousing the children for school, and they make lunches, skyhooking oranges into lunchboxes like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Kate the yoga dingbat babysits the youngest as Paul and Zoey run the restaurant, and by now, it’s late enough in the morning that you hope they have an assistant manager to open the place, since it’s a breakfast place.
The Baker house is a pandemonium of love and chattering voices, kids stacked like cordwood in bedrooms. But then developments start developing: Paul starts bottling and selling his secret sauce – for cooking, get your mind out of the gutter – and makes some real moolah, so they can finally afford a bigger house; next stop is franchising their mom-and-pop-and-all-the-kids restaurant. They move to a mini-manse in a gated community and send the kids to private school, so Paul must be selling so much sauce, just millions of dollars worth. But Zoey isn’t comfortable because everyone in the neighborhood is rich and white and immediately assumes she’s the nanny to her own kids and other gross, insulting stuff.
And nobody lived happily ever after. Paul risks compromising the charm of his restaurant, and is spending a lot of time away from home. The oldest kid risks losing a basketball scholarship after transferring to the new school. Paul and Kate’s adopted kid, who’s Indian, gets targeted by racist bullies. Another kid wants to impress a girl. Dom wants to be a bigger part of his kids’ lives, and he’s not happy when they appear to not be happy in their new situation. Zoey has to contend with Mega-Karen, the Blond Microaggressor in the moms’ group. And cousin Seth (Luke Prael) has to move in when his mom goes to rehab, so there’s 12 for you.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Yours, Mine and Ours, the original and the remake.
Performance Worth Watching: Braff and Union are true pros here, deftly balancing some more serious subject matter with light comedy.
Memorable Dialogue: “I know what you’re thinking – we’re not a cult.” – Paul introduces us to his family clan via voiceover
Sex and Skin: None. There’s one scene in which implied future coitus becomes a laff riot because HOW can a couple consummate the new house when they have SO many CHILDREN to interrupt them?
Our Take: Funny how the middle-aged white guy’s POV and voiceover serves as narrative umbrella for a neo-Cheaper that stirs race-based conflict into the usual this-family-is-outta-control shenanigans. Not that the film is anything but lightweight fodder for the whole family. It introduces the most basic ideas – e.g., Zoey not wanting her mixed-race children playing with their toy laser guns outside, Dom’s concern that his kids won’t learn about the Black experience from Paul – and doesn’t follow through on them, as if setting up a situation for children and their parents to continue the conversation. That’s not a terrible thing, and it’s far from hard-hitting, but those expecting the usual Disney drippery might be surprised by the topicality.
Outside that, well, this is the usual Disney drippery. The production values and precocious child actors are very Disney Channel – don’t choke on the gloss – so this movie was destined for non-theatrical release (and possibly a series spinoff, since so many characters are introduced and left hanging out to dry). There’s a notable dearth of lowbrow knee-to-the-nuts comedy; animal antics are kept to a minimum; no food fights made the cut; farts seem to be utterly verboten.
Union deftly handles the screenplay’s relatively “difficult” material, and Braff employs his trademark airy-goofball tone, delivering silly material (“That’s what you get for looking at butts!”) and genial sentiment (“I’m always here to be ordinary for you,” he tells his stepson, when the kid says he struggles to relate to his famous-athlete father) with equal aplomb. The angst is never too broody and the laughs are never too cheap. And rehashed material that’s been Updated for Our Modern Times, and would normally merit sighs and eyerolls, ends up being wholly palatable.
Our Call: STREAM IT. This Cheaper by the Dozen somewhat awkwardly acknowledges the issues a mixed-race family faces In This Day And Age, but at least it doesn’t ignore them for the sake of yet another slick, empty Disney sapfest.
John Serba is a freelance writer and film critic based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Read more of his work at johnserbaatlarge.com.