I am not one to start a review with petty nitpicking. However, I would like to make an exception for the 2022 iteration of Cheaper by the Dozen. From the original 1948 novel to the 2003 film, Cheaper by the Dozen dedicated itself to the insanity that is a family with twelve children. This new incarnation, meanwhile, takes a few liberties with the meaning of “dozen”. Instead of twelve kids, there are twelve family members (husband, wife, nine kids, and an oft-present ex-wife). This is hardly the worst thing an adaptation could do, as there is still room to dive into wild family antics. Still, it’s a pretty bad sign that a Cheaper by the Dozen movie of all things has to redefine “family of dozen”. Apparently, a family with twelve children is too much even for the filmmakers.
Not that streamlining the number of children does anything significant to the film. Twelve kids or not, Cheaper by the Dozen ’22 is just an insufferable experience. I am no fan of the 2003 film, but at least actors like Steve Martin rise above the material. Here, the cast is unable to make the comedy any less cringeworthy. Based on the involvement of writer Kenya Barris, it’s clear this new adaptation strives to be a sitcom. But while shows like Black-ish explore a family through many episodes, this film does not have that kind of space. Not only does it have the flat aesthetic of modern sitcoms, but it also lacks the insight that makes them worth watching.
Our central focus is on Paul Baker (Zach Braff), who moves his family from Los Angeles to Calabasas after he gets an opportunity to expand his food business. This move results in him spending less time with his kids, who clearly don’t approve of the sudden change. Chief among them is teenager Deja (Journee Brown), who quits basketball and begins a relationship with a guy at school. Meanwhile, Paul’s wife Zoey (Gabrielle Union) starts to feel the burden of taking care of so many kids while Paul is away. Just to complicate things further, Paul’s troubled nephew Seth (Luke Prael) moves in, following his mother entering rehab.
On paper, this does not seem like a recipe for disaster. In practice, this structure exposes just how inessential most of the other children are. Virtually all of them can be reduced to basic archetypes. To name a few, DJ (Andre Robinson) is The One Crushing On The Goth Girl™, Haresh (Aryan Simhadri) is The One Who Gets Bullied™, and Harley (Caylee Blosenski) is The One In The Wheelchair™. Some of them get more attention than others, but none of them evolve in ways that feel fresh or amusing. I’m convinced Barris and co-writer Jenifer Rice-Genzuk Henry copied and pasted lines of dialogue for the two sets of twins and called it a day.
This leaves us with a story where Paul has to be the primary source of the more pivotal moments. Too bad the filmmakers did not bother to give him material that was actually good. Instead, the movie bombards itself with sequences in which Paul tries his hardest to be “hip”. Like any attempt to make a middle-aged man “hip”, it cannot help but feel lame beyond belief. In particular, the sequence in which Paul dabs at the end of a dance-off feels far more triumphant than it should. The dramatic scenes fall flat because Braff does not have the capacity to project anything other than befuddled looks. Hence, the shift away from comedy feels unconvincing.
It’s a shame; it’s not like Cheaper by the Dozen ’22 has nothing to offer as a modern adaptation. As with most Barris projects, there is a focus on the unique experiences of people of color. In the case of Zoey, we get several scenes dedicated to people treating her differently because of her race. But like everything else in the film, they only take up a minor portion of the runtime. The rest consists of the usual family movie clichés that just happen to center on people of color. I suppose that’s progress, but I like to think writing people of non-white backgrounds takes more nuance than this.
This all results in a rather bad take on the material, but we’re still not in “bottom of the barrel” territory. To enter that realm, we have to contend with the ungodly amounts of product placement. Firstly, there are a ton of brand shout-outs in the script itself. In addition, Mitchell Amundsen’s low-contrast cinematography has a side effect: it makes every object in the frame stand out equally. This means that items like a Flamin’ Hot Cheetos bag can have as much importance as the main characters. By the time we get to a family member search that leads into an exclamation of “hey, that’s the new iPhone 12!”, the movie has become more of a consumable item than a piece of art.
Could someone have a strong emotional connection to this iteration of Cheaper by the Dozen? Certainly! If nothing else, its existence means that we have one more movie in which biracial families can see a part of themselves. But for myself, I cannot ignore the parallels between this and the equally wretched Home Sweet Home Alone. Both are examples of Disney milking the Fox properties they now own, and both have a major misunderstanding of what made those properties appealing. In any case, I sincerely hope we get out of this cinematic rut sooner than later. – Mark Tan
Cheaper by the Dozen (2022) is streaming on Disney+.
The film stars Zach Braff, Gabrielle Union, Erika Christensen, Timon Kyle Durrett, Journee Brown, Andre Robinson, and Luke Prael.