The plot is very loosely based on the book by Frank Bunker Gilbreth Jr and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey, which in turn formed the basis for the 1950ís film of the same name. That film, opening in the context of the post-WWII baby-boomer impulse, was actually set in the 1920ís, espousing values and traditions of a pre-war generation and designed to be a light-hearted guide out of the social upheaval and topsy-turvy morality resulting from a world war. It was also intended to provide the kind of comedy needed by a society seriously seeking escapism and comic relief. The most humorous element in the book Ė based on the real Gilbreth family - was the then innovative time-and-motion obsession of the father, and his experiments in that field with his twelve kids as guinea pigs. As such it may have worked. The only resemblance in Levyís film to that original is in the title and the fact of the twelve kids, and maybe that too is irrelevant, because the idea is merely a vehicle for Levyís characteristically imposed and manipulated humour, predictable and silly plot development with a most unsatisfying, morally dubious ending, asinine characterisations and (for the most part and as a result of the former,) unconvincing acting.
Tom Baker (Steve Martin) is obviously a man who has trouble with limits, as evidenced by the fact that despite aiming at a mere seven children, he and his wife Kate (Bonnie Hunt) have somehow allowed their brood to expand to twelve. Tom is a football coach in a small Illinois town and when he is offered the job of his dreams coaching at a Chicago University, he jumps at the chance, naturally enough. Thereís a fair amount of sacrifice that goes along with having twelve children, and maybe now itís his turn.
Unfortunately the kids, all of whom have seemingly been trained to be as self-centred and obstructionist as single kids often are, universally object in the most melodramatic way. Thereís the trouble with imposing limits again. It seems that the most reliable way for these kids to get their parentsí attention is by loudly demonstrating their suffering in prima donna fashion. Tom promises open-endedly that their life will be happier, which is a very hard promise to keep and largely based on wishful thinking, because he doesnít think to ask for their patience in adapting to their new situation. Small details such as reality are not Tomís strong point, he likes the broader (vaguer) picture better. In many ways heís the exact opposite of the methodical, dictatorial father in the original film, but supposedly a more loving (and modern) one in his ability to play with his kids and match their chaotic energy with his own.
Shortly after they move, the unexpected rave reception of Kateís book of memoirs (called ĎCheaper by the Dození, of course), which she has somehow had time to write, necessitates her going to New York for four days. Tom convinces her he can cope on his own and coach the football team as well, showing his typical inability to assess his abilities realistically. In doing this he tacitly invites the kids to impose anarchy in their time-honoured fashion, since they are unable to pull together to let their parents follow their dreams. The chaos increases exponentially when Kateís book launch turns into a book tour, and itís expected she will be away for two weeks.
The eldest child, Nora (Piper Perabo), has left home to get away from them all and is living with Hank, an utterly self-absorbed and vain TV ad actor suitably played by Ashton Kutcher. When she at last puts her own life and job on hold to come and help her father baby sit, the young kids target the conceited Hank in a particularly inventive and nasty way.
A sub-plot involves one child, Mark, (Forrest Landis) as the token loner whose name his own father keeps forgetting, while the other kids call him Fed-Ex, based on the premise that since he doesnít fit in he must have been dropped off by the Fed-Ex man. Though there are some moments of tender pathos afforded here, itís mostly predictable and clichťd, and of course Mark runs away at a crucial moment necessitating all hands on deck to look for him and a sentimental reunion when his dad finds him. Any other moments of unforced humour or genuine affection in the movie are destined to be as quickly brought down by contrivance as the chandelier which is continually falling.
The performances by Martin and Hunt are fine, given what they have to work with. However, only Bonnie Hunt transcends the shallowness of the script and shines with real warmth. The younger children do a great job, especially the younger twins played by Brent and Shane Kinsman and Alyson Stoner who plays the diabolically creative Sarah.
Among the many annoying elements in this rollercoaster of crises and disasters are that these supposedly super-organised parents have no support system in place in case either of them, or both, wants some time away from their kids. Even the Brady Bunch had Alice, and families of only three or four kids that I know usually have, for sanity, at least one reliable person they can call on for help. Conceivably, with only one income, they canít afford live-in help. All the more reason to train the kids to be self-sufficient.
The older kids are woefully irresponsible and spoilt, and the younger ones have made anarchy and confusion an art form. So itís unbelievable that mum has had had time to write her memoirs while the kids are still so domestically inept (when does she do the housework? And cook? And mend their clothes? And shop? And sleep? Because itís obvious all the kids can do is spread peanut butter, preferably on each other). And how irresponsible are they as parents not to teach their kids basic teamwork, domestic skills and consideration for others?
Similarly, when Tom tries unsuccessfully to ring all the domestic services in the book for a babysitter, I know itís meant to be funny that as soon as he says he has twelve kids they all put the phone down on him. However, all I was thinking was how silly it was that he didnít say he had only five children under ten (or whatever), trusting that the rest were old enough to look after themselves if not each other. (Does the 22-year-old need babysitting too?) Itís just one example of Levyís constant manipulation of the action which is too contrived for natural humour and therefore fails to be funny. Some contrivance is fine, but it should at least nod at credibility.
In what I came to regard as arrogance and disrespect for the audience is the frequently obvious boom mike in not a few scenes. Perhaps the chaos of the plot spread to the production crew? However, the out-takes at the end are great, their spontaneity and natural hilarity an obvious contrast to what is meant to be humour in the actual movie.
Further, and worse, in the end the parents give up on their individual dreams and return to their old home in Podunk, Illinois (which strangely has the same dining room as the Chicago house) to keep the kids happy.
All I can say is they deserve each other. --Avril Carruthers